Robustness of Tall Timber Buildings: Lessons from the Past

Michael Palmer
Principal & Architect
Perkins+Will, Chicago

In 1968, the 22-storey Ronan Point Tower in London partially collapsed after a small gas explosion knocked off only one wall near the top of the building. Structural robustness, or the prevention of disproportionate collapse, has since then entered the hall of fame of forensic engineering. In those five decades of robustness learning and exploration, further failures have reinforced the research momentum on the topic, with a significant spike in interest after the collapse of the World Trade Centre in 2001. Still, our building codes are lacking clarity on addressing the topic.

More recently, the technological advancements of engineered wood products and fire safety design have enabled the construction of taller buildings using structural timber. Sustainability, faster modular construction, and architectural qualities are pushing the tall timber typology into new heights: the world record for the tallest timber building has broken 4 times in the last 5 years, a faster pace than the skyscraper revolutions of the 30s and the 70s.

Are we however ready to provide the answers for the future sustainable cities with timber high-rises? When it comes to critical safety issues, like robustness, tall timber buildings behave differently, and we can learn a lot from the past failures and from the structural evolution of the skyscraper. This presentation will look at the current state-of-the-art on structural robustness via some past case studies, and will ultimately demonstrate that specific structural qualities can – and will – give answers for our future cities and robust high-rises, with timber being part of it.

Accompanying PowerPoint Presentation