Mass Timber as an Architectural Element

Architects not adopting biomaterials are “dinosaurs” says Michael Green

Ben Dreith

Canadian mass-timber pioneer Michael Green has hit out at architects designing unusually shaped buildings rather than embracing biomaterials in this interview as part of Dezeen’s Timber Revolution series.

Using engineered wood products to replace concrete and steel is a step in the right direction but should not be considered the endgame, said Green, principal of British Columbia-based Michael Green Architects and an early advocate for building tall with timber.

Exterior of the T3 office building with weathered steel cladding and grid windows

Michael Green designed T3 in Minneapolis in 2016, the tallest timber structure in the United States at the time. Photo by Ema Peter

“Too many architects are saying, ‘Oh, I did a mass-timber building. Check the box. I’m a sustainable architect’,” Green told Dezeen.

“There is no such thing as being a sustainable architect.”

“I do think mass timber is the best of the best right now,” he continued. “I encourage everybody to pursue it. But don’t rest on those laurels.”

Mass timber is an engineered material that binds together wood fibres in an industrial process that means it can often be used to create structures as an alternative to steel and concrete but with a much smaller carbon footprint.

Mass timber a "milestone on a path"

For Green, the growing use of mass timber proves that the construction industry can change by shifting to more carbon-friendly and renewable materials, but this in itself it will not fix the problems of “overbuilding” and waste inherent to the industry.

“All buildings have a long way to go before they’re even remotely sustainable,” he said.

“And I worry mass timber has become a kind of shorthand for sustainability, rather than a milestone on a path.”

[Portrait of architect Hermann Kaufmann by Lisa Dünser

Green has become one of the most well-known architects working with mass timber and is the architect of a number of mass timber projects, including T3 in Minnesota, which, at the time, was the tallest mass timber building in the United States at seven storeys tall.

He was influenced by his background as a woodworker and his fascination with the work of Austrian architect Hermann Kaufmann – who Dezeen interviewed for this series – taking his ideas and applying them to taller projects in Canada and the US, where the majority of housing is already made from wood.

Steel and concrete are "archaic"

“​​Hermann Kaufmann should win the Pritzker Prize,” said Green, adding that the architectural profession is too focused on celebrities and older ideas of modernism.

Green admits that he too was once a practitioner of steel-and-concrete modern architecture, but argues that these ideas are not fit for the contemporary.

After his exposure to the European mass-timber scene, Green left a studio in Vancouver in order to create his own with an explicit focus on environmentally focused methodologies.

“Modernist architects weren’t aware of climate change,” he said. “We’ve known since the 1950s, at least by the 1980s. And in that era of architecture, we saw a whole lot of bullshit. Deconstructivism: bullshit. Postmodernism: bullshit.”

“We’re attached to this notion of modernism that steel, glass, and concrete, are modern,” he continued. “Fuck that. Those are archaic materials. Those are industrial-age materials.”

“Every building you go into should be bio-based, and I think we will be there in 10 years. If you’re an architect not thinking that way, you’re a dinosaur,” he continued.

“We are in mother nature’s revolution, not the industrial revolution.”

Oregon Forest Science Complex by MGA | Michael Green Architecture

Green designed The Rosenburg Forest Products Atrium at the College of Forestry at Oregon State University. Photo by Josh Partee

For Green, architects have to play a role in shifting perceptions about what’s possible and mass timber is only one step towards all aspects of the built environment being made from biomaterials.

Mass timber can help figure out what the “new generation” of modern architects will look like, and that materials should set the agenda for what’s possible, he believes.

“How great our lives are when we’re part of imagining a real future, right?” said Green. “Not stupid-shaped buildings. Who fucking cares?”

Part of the impetus for thinking beyond mass timber has been Green’s preoccupation with a global model of biomaterial construction, noting that many places do not have the timber capacity of North America or Alpine Europe.

Limits to mass timber

For the mass-timber movement to matter, it should be carried forward into a truly global approach to an innovative construction that takes into account local ecosystems while limiting unnecessary building, argued Green.

“Huge parts of the world either don’t have forests or have super-threatened forests and wooden buildings are not a good solution to the stock from sustainable forestry,” Green told Dezeen.

“There are limits to where this is appropriate,” he continued.

“So the work we’re doing now is focused on grasses, bamboo, and other plants, as well as trees.”

[Exterior of Murray Grove by Waugh Thistleton

Green believes that the pioneers of modern architecture like Le Corbusier would have been at the forefront of coming up with new materials and methods for adjusting to the realities of limited resources and climate change.

“Corbusier would be building in mass timber, but more importantly, probably invent what’s next,” he said.

“I think way too many people around climate think that there’s going to be some miraculous solution that’s invented by Elon Musk, it’s not. It’s gonna be invented by an architect.”

The portraits of Green are by Julia Loglisci.


Do you agree that architects who are not adopting biomaterials are “dinosaurs”?

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I strongly agree with much of what was said.
Who’s to know who will save the world, or destroy it, but it’s clear that if humans don’t change faster than we are, and baring no intervention from a superpower, we would become like the dinosaurs, not just act like them at times.

Fortunately, I got to have a coffee with Michael during a break at an event last year, and that was great. I admire (among other things) people that practice what they preach, and do it while being down to Earth, sincere, and not being overly prideful (despite how a person might get a feel for him from his interview). Clearly, he’s also trying to elevate the value of Architects as a profession while he’s doing all that he’s doing, so he’s working overtime and carrying extra load. The industry needs people like him, and many more. It’s troubling to see that often society’s view of an Architects’ value is often based on being; draftspeople, functional designers, code checkers, bylaws appliers and project managers, among some other things they typically get hired for. They are so much more than that, they are complex problem solvers, creators, even inventors in some cases, counsellors, mediators, etc. the list could go on for some time. Think of all the hats a father and a mother wear raising children, and you get the picture of what one can see through the glasses of judging a role generically and not fully seeing all the other things that they do, then associating value to all these other things, and therefore being underappreciated. Just the fact that Architects can facilitate all the people in the world living in complex ways on a planet that requires physics and the ability to bear up against the climate, among many other natural and a seemingly myriad of other unnatural constraints, is not easy. So yes, I believe Architects are many times underappreciated. But as he mentioned, that doesn’t mean Architects should sit back and pat themselves on the back if not many others are going to, but they need to keep progressing to be better in as many ways as possible, and a good focus is on bio-based design. I’ll stop on that note and thanks for posting this Bill.