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Workers install a roof on a multi-family building in Broomfield, Colorado February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking Workers install a roof on a multi-family building in Broomfield, Colorado February 19, 2014. REUTERS/Rick Wilking  

White House pushes ‘wooden skyscrapers’ as a solution to global warming

The White House launched a new campaign to sell its global warming agenda to rural America: “sustainable” buildings, including skyscrapers, made out of wood to lower carbon dioxide emissions.

The Agriculture Department (USDA) announced it was launching a new $1 million program to promote wood as a “green” building material to boost rural economies, as well as a $1 million competition “to demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability of using sustainable wood products in high-rise construction,” according to Department.

“Wood may be one of the world’s oldest building materials, but it is now also one of the most advanced,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Building stronger markets for innovative new wood products supports sustainable forestry, helps buffer reduce [sic] greenhouse gas emissions, and puts rural America at the forefront of an emerging industry.”

The project is combines parts of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the administration’s push to win over rural America using green jobs. The USDA hopes to spur the use of wood technologies in industrial building projects like “tall buildings and skyscrapers, as well as other projects,” claiming that such buildings would produce be more energy efficient and reduce carbon emissions.

“By some industry estimates, a 3-5 story building made from emerging wood technologies has the same emissions control as taking up to 550 cars of the road for one year,” according to USDA. “Wood-based designs have also been demonstrated to improve energy efficiency, thereby reducing energy consumption for heating and cooling.”

The wood industry applauded USDA’s plan to promote wood from rural America, saying that such efforts would help the environment and save energy.

“Wood building products provide numerous environmental benefits, not the least of which is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and storing atmospheric carbon for decades,” American Wood Council President Robert Glowinski. “Wood products manufacturing also requires much less energy and results in less air and water pollution than many alternative building materials.”

“The market for wood and other forest products currently supports more than one million direct jobs, many in rural America,” said Jennifer Cover, executive director of WoodWorks. “As advanced wood products allow the use of wood in a greater variety of buildings — including wood high-rises — we can increase the role of forests in mitigating climate change while strengthening rural economies.”

But there are worries that have given cities some pause in adopting wooden high-rises. The Oregonian reports that “building codes that restrict wood construction for fear of structural weakness or vulnerability to fire.” Cross-laminated timber panels are combustible, but char and burn out without buckling, reports the Oregonian.

It’s also unclear if wooden panel high-rises and skyscrapers will have the durability of steel buildings and be as economical as steel. Wooden buildings also need to be treated for termites and can warp and twist over time. Steel does not suffer from such problems.

In 2009, London opened up one of the world’s tallest wood buildings, a nine-story apartment building framed in wood panels. Sweden has given the go-ahead for a 34-story wooden tower in Stockholm and in Vancouver, Canada one architect has proposed building a 30-story wooden high-rise. The city of Portland, Oregon approved it first cross-laminated timber project, a visitor center at the Oregon Zoo.

“That’s the trick,” Emily Dawson, the Portland project’s architect, told the Oregonian. “You have to use it in a way that’s efficient. Even though there’s a little bit of premium on the material… We were able to take [other] material out of the project.”

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