Could fire-blocking timber construction play a vital role in the carbon-neutral city of tomorrow? Scientists representing Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research say yes. In a new publication, they say that timber-based construction could morph into a critical carbon sink in cities everywhere, similar to trees. Researchers state that the “mass timber” building style is basically fire-safe, and other groups throughout the globe continue to create non-combustible wood products to provide a permanent resolution for this issue.

If a building is comprised of a solid wooden structure, it isn’t eaten by fire in the same manner as plywood. Plywood has flammable glue, rendering it riskier in this aspect than solid wood. Medium density fiberboard (MDF) and oriented strand board (OSB) are flammable as well. Solid wood has the tendency to burn on the exterior while the interior stays untouched, like attempting to ignite a campfire by tossing in solid logs.

Mass timber code differs from light wood frame construction, where slender pieces of wood, like structural 2X4s, are susceptible to fire as well. Sizable, structural pieces of mass timber are manufactured from the assembly of solid wood boards to create walls and other components.

The International Building Code, developed by the International Code Council—the basis for the majority of jurisdictions in the United States–was updated to acknowledge mass timber as ‘acceptable for fire blocking’.

That translates to mean that fire-safe mass timber is an ideal candidate for construction—and researchers state that its ability to absorb carbon renders it a precious commodity for the future. Once a complete new building code for mass timber is put into place, even a boost to 10 percent mass timber construction (with the remainder as status quo concrete and steel) would devise a carbon sink of 10 million tons of absorbed carbon annually.

The researchers say that their model depends solely on sustainable forestry, and they assert that two thirds of the nations they examined for this paper already boast a surplus of lumber in comparison with minimum sustainable levels. Plus both concrete and steel create large quantities of carbon emissions, and the construction industry creates 30 percent of yearly greenhouse gases. The production of concrete takes excessively high heat, as does the creation of steel. Both could make the switch to cleaner fuels such as hydrogen in the future, but modern wood is cleaner.

In Chicago, architects are planning the construction of a wooden skyscraper 80 stories in height, the River Beech Tower, just one of many planned wooden skyscrapers around the globe. It comes in the wake of an award-winning 2013 concept for a 30-story tower called Big Wood. Yet wood is lighter, more flexible to work, so this unusual title is actually a fitting one!