© Aldo Amoretti

Wood in the City

The return of timber as a urban building material has by now been recognised at almost all levels. There are many arguments in favour of its use, enabling it to re-establish itself in the urban environment - also beyond high-rise buildings. In recent years, load-bearing structures made of wood have been built in cities around the world. The positive experiences made are encouraging. And also investors are increasingly focussing on this renewable building material.

© Aldo Amoretti

A new timber construction?

In principle, urban timber construction is nothing new. From centuries-old half-timbered houses to the panelled construction of many Wilhelminian-style houses and the countless unexposed timber roof trusses, this building material has historically been part of our urban building culture. However, much has changed over time, both in terms of technology and building regulations. The fact that this new timber construction has become ‘predictable’ is due not least to the intensive co-operation between research, practical knowledge, craftsmanship, architecture, civil engineering and building physics. Prejudices regarding indoor climate, sound insulation and fire protection, for example, have been dispelled over recent years.*

Wood is one of the key elements also when it comes to responsibility and future potential in construction. As a renewable material, it can contribute to the urgent need of grey energy reduction. In addition, its carbon footprint and thermal insulation properties play an important role in overall sustainability certifications. Wood also offers advantages in term of dismantlability and recyclability. With foresight, careful planning and reversible joining, it can - relatively easily - be reintegrated into the material cycle. (B.R.I.O.).

There are many arguments for urban timber constructions, also apart from its eco balance and life cycle assessment: it is used between existing buildings where construction has to be quick. Its degree of prefabrication and lightweight construction bring clear advantages for inner-city constructions, renovations and, above all, extensions (Flachgasse). Modular construction systems enable efficient building operations and also make it competitive in terms of price.

In terms of digitalisation in construction, wood is one of the most modern building materials in our industry. Computer-aided planning, simulation and production processes are of great importance for the entire life cycle of a project as well as renovation and customisation tasks. Timber construction enables parametric design and closes the gaps between planning and execution, thus ensuring efficiency and optimisation for use of materials. Furthermore, the forward-looking and precise planning traditionally used in timber construction leads to a relatively high level of cost certainty, high construction quality and risk minimisation in the construction process.

The motivation for urban timber buildings is therefore being increasingly promoted by politicians. One example is the Deux Rives district in Strasbourg, where we were able to contribute with our mixed-use project Citadelle Dock-1, ZAC Deux-Rives . In this case, the newly developed building area had to be built only using sustainable materials such as wood.

Potential and experience

Despite these advantages and measures, the proportion of timber buildings in urban apartment blocks is still underrepresented and there is still a lot of potential to be unlocked. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter so much whether we plan a pure or whether we opt for hybrid construction and work with other surfaces. Either way - we can clearly count on wood as we continue to build our cities.

Our experience in this field is based on decades of practice in different scales, countries and contexts. The development of our office is also linked to the unique status and quality of craftsmanship in the area of Bregenzerwald. Based on this, we as an office and as an industry have further developed the processing techniques, just like the craft itself. At the same time, flexibility and comprehensive technical knowledge of woodworking have been maintained. In collaboration with universities and specialist planners, new expertise has been shared and can continue to be created. All this makes timber one of the building materials of the present and the future - especially in urban areas.

Text: Barbara Fontana, March 2024

* Cheret, P. (2017). Urbaner Holzbau – Chancen und Potenziale für die Stadt. Hrsg: Ministerium für Ernährung, Ländlichen Raum und Verbraucherschutz

Building on

Building with and within existing structures has a very long tradition and is more important today than ever. Dealing with our existing building stock is a highly relevant aspect for climate protection and it will be one of the biggest challenges for our industry in the coming decades. The decisive factor in this context is not our buildings’ operation but the hidden grey energy over their entire life cycle. The most sustainable building is therefore the one that is already there. As much as the remodelling and extending of buildings is a challenge for architects and all those involved in planning and construction, it also holds and demands a great deal of creativity and flexibility, inspiring new and exciting ways to build.

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The significance of place and craftmanship

The Vorarlberg region and the Bregenzerwald characterise the identity of Dietrich Untertrifaller. Every project that we bring to life carries a piece of this identity within it. Craftsmanship plays a key role in this - not in the sense of skills and qualities, but in the sense of attitude and appreciation of the context, resources and cooperation. In this respect, Vorarlberg symbolises far more than just the beginning of our history. Vorarlberg is sort of our laboratory, where everyone is the product of their environment, where we mutually benefit from each other through respectful interaction, joint discussions and open dialogue at eye level. The underlying aspirations we demand from ourselves and others is a constant element in our architecture and our approach.

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B.R.I.O. Neues Landgut, Vienna (AT)
New building, Affordable housing

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Wood’Art – La Canopée, ZAC La Cartoucherie, Toulouse (FR)
New building

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Rudolf Steiner School, Vienna (AT)
New building, Continue building

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