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Timber-Frame Architect Wins Competition With Wooden Sky-Scraper Column

Architect Tim Olson, from Bensonwood homes in Walpole, has a problem.

He and a friend have screwed together the first few pieces of a design project, called the Coopered Column, backwards.

“We’re looking at the plan upside down and assembling it, so we swapped the pieces,” he says laughing.

It’s understandable: there are 118 pieces – each one a big, meaty timber – and 250 screws to hold it all together.

The coopered column is one of four striking installations in an exhibit that opens today in the Boston Society of Architects’ gallery. There’s a system of curved flooring that you can actually walk on, a mass of thick interlocking wooden peaks or gables, and a series of impossibly curved two-by-fours. The purpose of the exhibit is to showcase designs that could be used to use more wood in massive buildings, replacing steel and concrete.

Olson’s column, if you can call it that, looks a like a cone turned upside down, or a bowl. The upturned lip juts out from around a corner of the gallery at an improbable angle.

It has this eccentric shape, one end is low, around knee height, and the other side is around six feet tall.

“That’s where it get’s scary,” says Olson, “I don’t know if you ever work on your car, but I get that feeling whenever I go under my car when it’s up on a block or something. It’s like there’s something heavy over you, it definitely gives you this kind of visceral reaction.”

That reaction is heightened when you know it had to be carefully balanced to keep from tipping over. The column weighs about 3,000 pounds, and the long protruding lip of the bowl was designed in computer models to be stabilized with steel counter-weights concealed in the timbers of the low end.

The first step: Olson and Mac MaGee from Fraserwood put together the "keystone" piece, after first assembling it backwards.

“The computer model as far as I’m concerned is junk now,” says Olson who after he finished assembling it for opening day found that the far end was actually being pulled off the floor by a few inches. “It’s really close to its balance point, I can unweight the end if I pull on it.”

For safety’s sake, Olson added more weight to the base to keep the piece’s foot on the floor.

A Big Idea

Each piece in the exhibit is an art project, but is trying to prove some design theory.

Olson calls his bowl a column because that was his original idea, a wooden column that could handle the weight of a sky-scraper. He deformed the column into a bowl shape to show how the design could handle stresses it would take to hold up a building.

“It was creaking a bit actually in the gallery, when we were done with it,” he explains, “You’d be cleaning up and you’d hear ‘Pop!’ and you think it’s settling into where it wants to be.”

He calls it coopered because it borrows from the design of a barrel, with the interlocking timbers acting like staves, and a “ring” of screws holding it together mimic the “cooper” of a barrel, or the metal band.

“Coopered Column” by Timothy Olson. from Ethan Lacy on Vimeo.

Making big buildings out of wood is a trendy idea, and like many trendy ideas it has its own TED talk.

“Steel represents about 3 percent of man’s greenhouse emissions, and concrete is over 5 percent,” says Mike Green, a New York architect, in the talk. He estimates that every 20 story building made out of wood instead of steel or concrete saves around 4,300 tons of carbon, “equivalent to about 900 cars removed from the road in one year.”

A 34-story wooden sky-scraper is slated to be built in Sweden by 2023. Currently the tallest wooden buildings are around nine-stories tall.

Boosters for the idea even say the massive, glued-together timber panels being used in these buildings actually stand up to fire better than steel.

And there many such boosters, like the New England Forestry Foundation, which believes sustainable timber harvesting and conservation can complement each other. It recently released a report with modeling that estimates the region could sustainably harvest double the amount of timber it does today.

“We were still able to protect water quality, we were still able to set wildlife reserves aside, and this was a 50 year simulation,” said Bob Perchel, executive director of the Foundation, “The scenario that was best was the one where we actually harvested more materials.”

Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR
The specialty screws that hold the piece together aren't something you can buy at home depot.

  There are caveats here for some environmentalists: like how would all that forestry activity affect the diversity of tree species and wildlife that supports, but suffice it to say it’s an idea some people have.

Olson and his column are part of that, although his column is mostly an academic exercise, flowing from his background in sculpture.  

“I think we have the kernel of something that could be brought to a tall building somehow, but certainly we didn’t take it there yet,” he says.

The exhibit, called Urban Timber, will run all summer, and is free and open to the public.

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