Human beings have been building with wood since before we were even human.
That is, it was our evolutionary ancestors, Homo erectus, who made the first wooden spears and bowls on the planet.
And yet over a million years later there are still plenty of good reasons to build with wood. It’s commonplace, user-friendly, sustainable, versatile, and, yes, beautiful. Some even say that it’s carbon neutral as a source of energy.
On the other hand, the world has been losing millions of acres of trees to deforestation for decades. In fact, about 129 million hectares of forest – which is nearly the size of South Africa – have been lost just since 1990, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in The Global Forest Resources Assessment 2015.
Should we really view wood as the “building material of the future” as our forests disappear?
Quite possibly, yes. There are at least three good reasons for thinking wood has a bright future in the 21st century. First, over the past 25 years, the rate of net global deforestation has slowed down by more than 50%. As a global population, it seems, we are getting better at managing our forests in a sustainable way.
Second, planting trees is one strategy for battling climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and store carbon, although the benefit is greatest when when the trees are planted in the tropics. We will likely need to plant many more trees in the coming century.
Third, engineers are transforming treated wood into a super strong and even transparent substance. In fact, cross-laminated timber is so sturdy and fire-resistant that is is now being used to erect skyscrapers. “There’s a whole bunch of new materials made out of wood that are structurally able to build big buildings,” says Dr. Michael Ramage of the Center for Natural Material Innovation at Cambridge University.
Michael Green, founder of Michael Green Architecture, notes that wood is “going through a really interesting phase of being reinvented in modern architecture.”
Yet, the increasing strength of wood is only part of the story. At the University of Maryland, scientists have created a transparent form, which is made by removing the organic substance lignin and then injecting the wood with an epoxy.
The result could be a replacement for glass. “Glass windows are a big problem in the summer and winter, they have bad thermal isolation,” said Dr. Liangbing Hu of the University’s Department of Material Science and Engineering.
The wood, which can be made stronger than steel, might also be used in solar cells in the future. “Transparent wood is a good material for solar cells, since it’s a low-cost, readily available and renewable resource,” said researcher Lars Berglund from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who is also working on transparent wood. “This becomes particularly important in covering large surfaces with solar cells.”
Maybe even the cars of the future will be built of wood. Toyota has unveiled an electronic concept wooden roadster. So, it’s increasingly possible to imagine a bizarre yet oddly comforting era when we grow the bodies of our self-driving automobiles and power them with the sun as if they were trees.