The assumption that wood houses are not made to last is simply that: an assumption—and an incorrect one at that. The oldest wood building in the world is Japan’s Hōryū-ji pagoda, which has a cypress structure that is now more than 1,300 years old (it was first built in 607, then reconstructed following a fire in 670). In Norway, there is at least one wood house that researchers believe dates back to 1170 while another in Switzerland was built in 1176. And countless half-timbered houses based on a timber-rod structure are well over 400 years old. While wood-framed homes are common in America and Canada, there are plenty of reasons to consider using the material to a greater extent in new construction.
Advantages of wood houses for the environment
Wood offers a whole range of advantages for climate-friendly architecture. Most notably, its net CO₂ output is significantly lower than that of many other building materials (especially when compared to concrete, which is responsible for around 10% of all manmade carbon dioxide). This advantage only grows if the wood comes from sustainable and, ideally, regional sources.
Additionally, wood’s production does not require a high energy input, while trees absorb and store CO₂ from the atmosphere as they grow. The construction of a wood home is easier and faster than that of brick or concrete houses. Wood also has excellent insulating properties, which can be incorporated into a house's design and improve the living environment both in summer and winter.
Furthermore, wood is often pre-treated and processed, which makes construction possible regardless of the weather. Houses can be erected even under damp and cold conditions (something that is not true of houses that use poured concrete or mortar which take longer to set when it is cold or wet). And while the fear of fire may linger for some, most mass timber, which is often used in construction, is fireproof.
The circular economy of wood
When a wood house reaches the end of its life, it has the advantage of being more easily recycled than steel or concrete. Wood houses can usually be broken down into their individual parts, which can then be reused or recycled more efficiently. Ideally, this produces minimal waste. The production of concrete, on the other hand, requires considerable amounts of water, gravel, cement, and sand—raw materials that can only be reused as fillers and rubble after demolition. Of course, the natural building material can also be aesthetically pleasing—just take a look at the following examples of particularly impressive wood houses.
Not a single tree was felled for the façade of this wood house—it consists entirely of offcuts from the plank and parquet production of the Danish manufacturer Dinesen. “Ever since we got to know the company as part of a study project at the Copenhagen Academy of Art, we thought about what we could do with offcuts,” says Erik Kolman of Kolman Boye Architects. The architects decided to use oak, a particularly durable hardwood that is well suited for façades, for this project. In the end, they used 12,000 individual boards. These were of different widths and had to be sawed to three different lengths—fortunately, in addition to being an architect, Kolman runs a carpenter’s workshop.
The young architectural firm Mjölk combines “conceptual simplicity, honesty, and youthful playfulness” in its work. This approach is behind the Czech architects’ design for the Marketka House where the studio intentionally rejected pure functionalism. “People don't understand why there is a 30-foot-high ceiling; they ask why we didn’t opt for more rooms instead.” Their short answer is that it was the look they wanted, which sometimes is more important than maximizing square footage.
In the middle of the unique landscape of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan stands a house that skillfully reinterprets the local vernacular architecture. Inspired by the building traditions of the region, the house designed by the architects at Yaratam continues the history of Tatar culture in its choice of materials and colors, but in an updated version with clean lines. For the house, architect Petr Safiullin placed two structures of different heights on top of each other, which at first glance seem to collide. Outside and inside, wood and other natural materials set the tone: All rooms (except for the bathrooms) are laid with French oak parquet.
Berlin meets Mexico City in the middle of the Spreewald, a biosphere reserve southeast of Germany’s capital. Christoph Zeller comes from Berlin, Ingrid Moye from Mexico City, and together the architects bridge these different worlds. Their work includes a small wood house that nestles quietly in a pine forest. Haus Köris is visibly aging in the sun, but that is not a shortcoming, instead its patina provides a special quality to the home. It was originally intended as a weekend retreat for a couple from Berlin but they have since decided to make it their primary residence. Thanks to its construction method using prefab panels, the house is excellently insulated and requires little when it comes to heating. The green roofs also have an insulating effect and help the structure blend in with its surroundings.
In the Jardins de Métis in Québec, Atelier Pierre Thibault built a guest house for the participants of the famous International Garden Festival that takes place nearby. The home was constructed with tough ash wood and a tin roof, which helps it withstand the harsh weather of its location not far from the St. Lawrence River. The wood house consists of two parallel offset bodies that blend sublimely into the green surroundings and bring a subtle Scandinavian-inspired look to Canada.
New York’s Fire Island is home to one of the country’s most impressive collections of wood-clad modernist homes. Fashion designer Derek Lam chose to buy a structure by midcentury master Horace Gifford, who created some of the area's most remarkable buildings. The redesign by Neal Beckstedt was an exercise in restraint, using natural materials, colors, and finishes: lightly stained vertical boards of white cedar were used on almost all walls, both inside and out, while the outdoor terrace is of mahogany and the interior floors are of black split-slate tile.
For the Karimoku Case Studies, Copenhagen-based Norm Architects, the Tokyo studio Kaija Ashizawa Design, and the Japanese wood furniture manufacturer Karimoku joined forces. Inspired by the rich design cultures of Japan and Denmark (and the famous Case Study Houses in California), they created their own case studies, furnished with specially designed custom pieces. On the west coast of Sweden, the different volumes of the Archipelago House are connected by wood decks and stairs. The use of wood is typical of many Swedish homes and the material provides a warm contrast with the rocky coastal landscape while also making for cozy interiors.