176: Are Wooden Skyscrapers a Bad Idea? And listener mailbag…

Matt and Sean talk about comments from the mailbag, which includes a lot of thoughts on building with wood vs. concrete, sustainable timber, and more. 

Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, How We Engineered Incredible Wooden Buildings https://youtu.be/1N0tdEc4oTw?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi7uzySCXq8VXhodHB5B5OiQ

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On today’s episode of still to be determined, we’re going to be talking about sustainable building with wood, possible pitfalls to wood construction and viewer thoughts on tree farms, among other things. Hey everybody. As usual, I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I write some sci fi. I write some stuff for kids such as the sinister secrets of singe.

My newest book, which is out in bookstores right now. I’m just generally curious about technology. So lucky for me that my brother is that Matt of Undecided with Matt Ferrell, whose videos focus on technology and how it impacts our lives. Matt, how are you doing today? I’m doing

great. It’s been a good weekend, busy, but good.


about you? It has been 40 million percent humidity here in New York city. Same here with very muggy, high, just total grossness, uh, the forecast calls for sweaty pits. It’s awful. It’s awful. And it has been like, no matter where we go, no matter what we do, we feel like we’re, I feel like I’m smuggling.

Hot water bottles on my body. Like I feel like I’m sloshing everywhere I go. And it was described perfectly by my partner who said, I feel like a walk like grimace and it was the perfect visual. Like that is who we all are now. This is us. This is, this is who we have become. So it’s been kind of muggy, but you know, I’m trying to make the best of it.

And I have, uh, by the time this comes out, it will be too late for anybody to join us, but I have a reading I have to go to in New Jersey, and I’m just looking forward to being in an air conditioned vehicle. For the entirety of that, that trip. So before we get into our most, our current discussion on Matt’s most recent episode, I wanted to talk a little bit about some comments from previous episodes, such as this one from episode one 75, in which Jason Korb talked about.

Wooden skyscraper building. There was a lot of back and forth around what it means to build in wood. It’s surprisingly, I mean, you’re talking about a scale that makes people kind of hesitate when you’re talking about skyscrapers. So there’s a lot of back and forth in the comments around what does this actually mean?

How actual, how could this actually be strong enough? And some people pointed out some issues with. One commenter in particular pointed out a bridge in Norway that collapsed a couple of years ago that was supposed to last for a hundred years. It was built out of laminated wood. It collapsed after ten years when a truck and a car were driving across it.

Luckily, nobody died in the collapse. But they… In their investigation, determined that it was some sort of shearing forces where the wood met with a metal joint. And so it created some point of, of pressure that the wood was not actually, there wasn’t enough wood there to support. The weight and they were looking at it from the perspective of it’s entirely possible that the way it was designed, they designed it with half as much capacity as they originally intended.

That’s bad engineering. That’s bad engineering. That’s not material. Yeah. So, and that’s also, you know, 1 wooden bridge collapsing in the midst of, I don’t even know how many metal and concrete bridges have also collapsed in recent years. Yeah. Due to age, due to them not being specked out properly or bad building materials.

So there’s a lot of interest in the topic, but there’s also concern like, is it in fact likely? And there were questions about rot and things like that because you hear wood and immediately you’re just like, well, wood can rot. Why like steel can rust steel can rust, but it’s the devil, you know, versus the devil you don’t.

Yes, exactly. That’s what’s going on. But there was a lot of. Back and forth in the comments. And there were comments like this from Makas94 who wrote, it’s a very informative episode and more research is clearly needed. It would be best to see how it could be implemented in developing countries where a large part of the environmental impact is generated.

I think the comment here is intending to say you in trying to reinforce sustainable efforts. Um, in developing countries where they are prone to adopting the materials, which the more developed countries happily ship to them, you know, the United States and other countries are more than happy to ship concrete and steel to countries to allow them to build highways and bridges and buildings.

If this is the future, is there a way for this to be a developing nation option first? Instead of the glass and steel and the sorts of buildings that we tend to think of, oh, as you become more developed, this is the type of structure you end up with. Did you hear anything from the research or the conversations you’ve had around this that would indicate this is potentially going to have a splash in countries where they’re like, we don’t wanna adopt building techniques, which are hopefully.

Being phased out. We didn’t.

And I think part of the reason for that was some of the stuff we were finding a lot of information on you really for this to work for wood buildings to actually work. You need to have sourcing of those materials relatively close. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to be like, Uh, farming trees in one area of the world and ship it halfway around the world to build it somewhere else.

The economics of that don’t work out. It makes a lot more sense if it’s more of a regional approach. This kind of ties back into what we say it again and again, there’s no silver bullet that’s going to make sense everywhere in the world for every possible situation. But if there’s local resources where there’s.

Ample trees and ample farming for those trees. And there’s this, and it’s being done in a sustainable way. The local regional access to that is what helps because it, it keeps the costs down and it becomes kind of like a, um, it’s not, it’s not a closed loop, but it’s like, it creates a system where it can kind of self sustain itself in that region.

And to export wood around the world, that would be able to do this. It just is not feasible at all. The economics would kill it. Right. Right. Yeah. Beginning. And so some of these developing countries that you’re, you’re alluding to, they’re probably in areas of the world that may not have access to large forests and things like that.

So it’s like, it’s not going to make sense for them, for them. It’s probably going to be that concrete steel. It’s going to be the other things that are cheap and effective. And we know work well, that’s, that’s kind of what we were coming across is the economics. Really drive

it in that vein. There was this comment from Paz who wrote, he was excited about the video and said, as a Colombian citizen who loves the city of Bogota, I am considering getting involved in urban planning and considering how developing a forestry industry for mass timber construction would be a viable alternative for development, and it is a challenge worth the time.

So there are those. Those people who picked up on the video as being a potential path to a more sustainable construction future, which is exactly the goal of the video. There was a question from Carol Wood who questioned at one point in your video, there’s reference to a six story building in Michigan.

And the question here was, is that a hybrid building or is it entirely mass timber? Are you aware of?

I’m not aware of which one it is. I believe it’s completely mass timber, but don’t quote me on that for a smaller building, like a six story building. That’s when you tend to see, okay, it’s almost entirely mass timber.

When you start to get to these taller structures, like it’s 25 stories where they’re planning a 35 story. That’s where you start to get into the realm of it’s most likely going to be a hybrid approach. just because of the size and scale of it. Like when I was talking to Jason Korb in, my interview, if you watch the full interview, he talked about like, you could make a timber building like almost as tall as you want, but then those structural timbers that are supporting all that weight become so large.

It’s just like, it’s just not feasible. There’s a point at which with economics and just the size and scale of the engineering of like, okay, you need to, you need to support structure. That’s four feet across. It’s like, okay, that doesn’t make sense when we can do concrete and steel at half the size. So it’s.

There’s this tipping point, but it’s, that’s why some of these super tall ones that are being planned that are 30 stories or taller are absolutely hybrid where they’ll have maybe concrete columns. Uh, and then the flooring is all mass timber. So it’s like a cut between both to kind of get to that approach.

So that’s kind of ties right back into, there’s no silver bullet here. It’s like, there’s most likely these hybrid approaches are going to become more and more popular. Because you can kind of get the best of both worlds, cut dramatically, cut back on the amount of concrete and steel you need, and then you’re still using a more of sustainable material.

And it’s kind of the benefits of both, um, without having to give up a lot of the cost

benefits from either. There were also some comments on in particular, your most recent. Video, which is also about the, the wooden building structures. So we’ll jump from our original conversation about this topic to moving forward to your most recent video.

And that’s the video that dropped on July 11th, 2023, how we engineered incredible world wooden buildings. In case anybody hasn’t checked that out yet, there was some comments around the forestry industry that would have to be in support of this. And as we’ve talked about previously, it’s. A little counterintuitive.

We get the whole green message, the environmental message of we can’t be cutting down forests, but then when you get to this kind of industry, you really do have to take the approach of it’s sustainable because as long as you plant trees to replace the ones you harvest, you will grow more trees. But if you make more concrete and just more concrete and more concrete, you’re.

Adding things to the environment that are over the longterm, not a positive. And if you’re constantly mining ores out of the ground to make steel. Well, you’re not going to make more or so we end up with this pro environmental message of use the trees instead. So it’s this strange sort of seesaw back and forth that I think as a culture.

We’ve struggled with because when you and I were growing up, you know, and the save the forests, it was all about save the forest. Don’t cut down a tree, never cut down a tree. It’s inhumane to, to impact the world in that way. And now to have it swing the other direction and say, look, if you like forests, you should really cut them down occasionally and replant them.

And we’re seeing that in the forms of not to lay blame for the forest fires we’ve been dealing with at the feet of environmentalists, but the pro. Let’s not touch the forests at all, but forests can’t naturally cure themselves of the overgrowth without this kind of horrible culling in the form of a fire.

So forest fires are a part of the natural culling process. Unfortunately, they have the negative effect of Being awful for all of us. So it’s this kind of like, well, you need to do things in order to manage the forest so that you don’t end up with these terrible purges in the form of forest fires. And it’s a renewable resource.

So the thinking is evolving quite a bit around what does it mean to love forests and love trees and protect the environment while also doing things that allow us to inhabit the world the way we need to. The

other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of these, when you’re talking about this is not true for everywhere, but like there’s areas that are doing very sustainable managed forestry for this purpose specifically to cut them down.

You have to think of those acres of land. It’s like a farm. They’re just growing a crop. The crop just happens to be a tree instead of corn or wheat. It’s just a tree. It’s kind of like that may be a bad analogy, but like Christmas tree farms. It’s like they grow pine trees to literally cut down every year so that you can have a tree in your house for Christmas.

It’s like, and they plant new trees. It’s just literally a crop. It takes a while for them to grow. You’re talking years, not months. And it’s like, so you have. Uh, one area that’s five years old and it’s almost to the growth that you need to cut it down. And you have another one that’s just starting out.

And it’s like these, these companies that manage these own and manage these lands, it is literally just a crop. So it’s not like they’re cutting down a untamed forest and then just planting it and hoping everything goes back to normal. That’s not exactly what they’re doing. It’s, it’s more of a, this is a set number of acres.

It’s owned by, you know, a group or a company and they’re managing that land. Like anybody would manage a farm. And it’s just, just happens to be trees and it is possible to do this in a smart,

intelligent way. Yeah. In that exact vein. Yeah. There were a couple of comments I wanted to share, which are about some of the issues surrounding.

That kind of farming industry, which are, are important to keep in mind, again, from an environmental standpoint, this comment from hopefully an optimistic who wrote one notable problem with this sort of replanting is that replanted trees are often a monoculture from the perspective of a logging company.

This makes sense. Monocultures are easier to harvest. You get all the same type of wood, which makes the structural properties of engineered timber products more consistent, and you can fast pick growing trees like the pine being planted at four minutes, seven seconds, monocultures have significant problems as well.

The most notable being disease past and sometimes drought resistance. And then there was another comment by Nicholas who wrote, it’s important to note that forests and tree farms are very different. The grid shaped pin forests, we see at the beginning have a much lower biodiversity compared to a normal forest, and they don’t normally have the same benefits or amounts of benefits.

So increasing the amount of tree farms does not increase the amount of forests. And these are very good things to keep in mind when it comes to a sustainable industry, we are talking about industry. When it comes to protected lands. So when Matt and I are talking about this, we are not under the illusion.

That, Oh, you could just convert every forest into no, a sustainable farming issue. We do not, we do not see that. And I did, and I do not think the industry sees that. I think there are people who would definitely love to be able to go into the, in some of the protected lands and cut down those forests.

They absolutely would, but we’re not suggesting that that’s the proper approach. There was a comment from in ear who wrote what is overlooked too often as the glue. That is engineered for this laminated wood. I imagine it’s neither a ignorable quantity of glue and the production of the glue has some environmental consequences.

Do you know anything about the glues that are used in this? Like what kinds of impacts they might have long term? It’s a really

good question. I don’t have a good answer for that, but I have done a lot of research, not for CLT for this, like mass timber, but when you think about like plywoods and things like that, that we use in our homes.

It’s like made out of like, I think it’s polyuria, like it’s basically like there’s formaldehyde adhesives in some of this stuff, which Yeah, give out VOCs. It’s toxic. I mean, those VOCs will dissipate after a couple of years, but still it’s, it’s materials that kind of

make this wood. California not too friendly to break down.

Yeah. California is famous for having, I’ve, I know I’ve bought these products. I’ve bought products that come with a label on the box that says, yep, the state of California needs you to know that this may cause cancer. Yes. And I’m like, It’s a cabinet. What? And then it’s off gassing in your house. That’s why. That’s exactly why.

Yeah. Yes. So a couple of comments that I wanted to end on, which I thought were a nice wrap up of maybe future videos for you. One from Jesse Griffin, who wrote strand woven bamboo is two to three times harder than hardwood. I would love to see a building of this material being used. Have you? Thought about looking into other forms of grown material in building construction beyond the laminated wood method that you’ve talked about in this video.

Bamboo is on our

backlog list to possibly look into. I’m fascinated by it as well. There’s downsides to bamboo. What you just brought up about the adhesives. That is very true for bamboo. So it’s like, there’s, it depends on how it’s being manufactured, how it’s being used, what the intent is behind it. So there’s, it’s a kind of a thorny topic, but on bamboo, I actually, in my new house, I’m going to have all.

My hardwood is actually not wood. It’s like hard bamboo. My flooring is all bamboo. I used

to have a home that had bamboo flooring and it was gorgeous. It was beautiful material and very

hard. It’s much harder than


Yeah. And the thing about bamboo, that’s also a positive as far as using it as a building material, it grows incredibly fast.

It’s a grass. It’s, yeah, it will, there are concerns in the United States with bamboo, which does not have a natural predator bamboo growing in the wild here because people imported it and then planted it in their yards and their gardens because it looks nice. And then it’s an invasive species and it spreads like wildfire.

So there are areas around the United States where you, if you spot bamboo, you’re supposed to cut it down and kill it. Because it will choke out everything else. So if you’re approaching this from a farming standpoint, it’s probably a really good crop because pretty quickly after you mow it off, it will regrow.

And there you go again. There was also this from Robert Bailey who wrote, I would like you to do a video on smaller applications of mass timber construction, like three to six story apartments, shopping centers, and single family homes. So there’s another option for yeah. How are some of these sustainable methods of building being used besides skyscrapers?

Skyscrapers are, of course, a major issue for urban centers, but when it comes to how are we living that that’s another option for you to take a look at. So listeners, what do you think? Please jump into the comments and weigh in on what we’ve been talking about. If you think that you’ve spotted a gap in our conversation, jump in and let us know.

Your comments really do drive the content of this program, and they help inform the mothership Undecided with Matt Ferrell. If you’d like to support the show, please consider reviewing us on YouTube, Apple, Spotify, wherever it was you found this, go back there, leave a review. Don’t forget to subscribe and please do tell your friends.

Word of mouth is a tremendous support for the channel. And if you’d like to more directly support us, Click the join button on YouTube or go to still tbd. fm and click the, become a supporter button, just like Benjamin Burger did recently. And he was very generous in his support. We appreciate that.

Benjamin, thank you so much. The coins, they hit us right about here. It was terrific. Perfect. Thank you so much, everybody, for taking the time to listen or watch. And we’ll talk to you next time

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