They add drama to the city but are generally energy-intensive vanity projects

Andrew Waugh

Is big good?

We have been involved in a research project for a number of years to build very tall in timber. The rational is reasonable; understanding urban densification as inevitable – and certainly desirable over sprawling suburbs. But I’m beginning to question whether skyscrapers are the answer.

As we rail against the use of concrete in the city one of the contrary positions is that timber is restricted to low buildings. So we sharpen our pencils and step up to the podium and talk about and draw beautiful very tall timber buildings. We’ve done it, so have other practices such as MGA, SOM, Ramboll, DRMM and on.

I’m concerned we’re becoming sidetracked, looking for the feasibility of something we shouldn’t even want

But are we leading ourselves astray? Is there really an environmental case for very tall timber buildings? Moreover is there a sustainable case for very tall buildings full stop? Are we heading into a conversation centred on a false premise? The reason for building in timber - scrapping what we know how to do, is to reduce our impact on the environment.

An argument that maybe valid is the space travel or Formula One argument - that competition and excess lead to innovation. I can see that. As long as they stay on paper and on the podium. Cities made of skyscrapers may have a towering drama to them. Ken Yeang’s indelible images are captivating. But I’m concerned we’re becoming sidetracked, looking for the feasibility of something we shouldn’t even want…

The skyscraper is generally a vanity project. An energy intensive headline grabbing piece of work which can fascinate and titilate, but is generally questionable to live in – remember Goldfinger? He only lasted a few months in his own edifice. The decent density that can be achieved by towers is dubious and the quality of the city they leave below them even more so.

We need to be deeply rational about this. Mid-rise, 8-15 storeys - these are the cities for the future, high density and low impact places to live our lives happily. Timber is perfect for this, we need to go out and grow new and healthy cities.

Andrew Waugh has been director of Waugh Thistleton Architects for the last 15 years. He lives and works in Shoreditch, London. Andrew was an early pioneer in the architectural quest for tall timber buildings with Waugh Thistleton’s nine-storey timber Murray Grove project in 2009.