London’s first timber skyscraper could be a step closer to reality after researchers presented London Mayor Boris Johnson with conceptual plans for an 80-story wooden building integrated within the city's Barbican residential estate.

Researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture are working with PLP Architecture and engineers Smith and Wallwork on the concept, which would create over 1,000 new residential units in a 1 million square-foot, mixed-use tower and mid-rise terraces in central London.

At present, the tallest timber building is a 14-story apartment block in Bergen, Norway. The proposals presented to Johnson include a timber tower almost 1,000 feet high, which would make it the second tallest building in London.

The proposed timber tower would be the second-tallest building in London. Image credit: PLP Architecture.The proposed timber tower would be the second-tallest building in London. Image credit: PLP Architecture. “We’ve designed the architecture and engineering and demonstrated it will stand, but this is at a scale no one has attempted to build before," says Dr. Michael Ramage, director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation. "We are developing a new understanding of primary challenges in structure and construction. There is a lot of work ahead, but we are confident of meeting all the challenges before us.”

The use of timber as a structural material in tall buildings is an area of emerging interest for its variety of potential benefits, the most obvious being that it is a renewable resource, unlike prevailing construction methods relying on concrete and steel. The research is also investigating other potential benefits, such as reduced costs and improved construction timeframes, increased fire resistance and a significant reduction in the overall weight of buildings.

“If London is going to survive, it needs to increasingly densify. One way is taller buildings," says Ramage. "We believe people have a greater affinity for taller buildings in natural materials rather than steel and concrete towers. The fundamental premise is that timber and other natural materials are vastly underused, and we don’t give them nearly enough credit."

Their tall-timber-buildings research is also investigating the creation of new design models with timber buildings, rather than simply copying the forms of steel and concrete construction. According to the team, the transition to timber construction potentially offers opportunities to rethink not only the aesthetics of buildings, but also the structural methodologies as well.

According to the team, the type of wood these new buildings would use is regarded as a "crop." The researchers say that the amount of crop forest in the world is currently expanding and that Canada alone could produce more than 15 billion m³ of crop forest in the next 70 years—enough to house approximately one billion people.

Perhaps the most obvious concern for potential residents of homes built primarily from timber is fire risk. However, the team says the proposed building would eventually meet or exceed every existing fire regulation currently in place for steel and concrete buildings.

Research has shown that timber buildings can have positive effects on their users' and occupants' health. According to the researchers, several recent studies have also shown that children taught in schools with timber structures may perform better than in those made of concrete.

This article is an edited version of one that originally appeared on the Cambridge University (UK) website and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

To contact the author of this article, email