Architecture is derived from necessity, a theory first conceptualized in the 18th century by Marc-Antoine Laugier with the Primitive Hut. Constructed with rough-cut timber and adorned with natural foliage, the Primitive Hut represents architecture in its purest form; a structural manifestation of the natural world fulfilling one of humanity’s most basic needs. Although certain modernists have attempted to return to this simple design philosophy by creating efficient machines for living, the critical connection to nature is often lost or left out. Machines are purely mechanical in a way that humans are not, and structures designed in this way often lack the touch of life that connects us to our environment. With his design for the Toronto Tree Tower, an 18 story high rise in Canada, Chris Precht seeks to reconnect the built and natural environments by combining modern technologies with traditional principles.
Although the modern city is defined by sleek concrete and steel towers, for centuries, wood reigned supreme. Structurally versatile and visually pleasing, wood also communicates a sense of warmth and life and is making an urban comeback. The Toronto Tree Tower is a visual epitome of this return and a powerful representation of architecture’s endless possibilities. Stepping away from typical concrete and steel construction, it relies on Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). Despite its relatively recent conception, CLT is quickly gaining ground as a viable alternative to less sustainable materials. According to the World Green Building Council, the building and construction industry is responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, and CLT offers a way to reduce this number.
Composed of alternating layers of laminated wooden planks, these structurally engineered panels are less wasteful and require less energy for production than steel and concrete. Although turning to a wooden alternative seems problematic given the escalating deforestation crisis, with responsible harvesting, wood is a renewable resource with a lower carbon footprint than current materials. CLT does not require fossil fuels for production and contributes to cleaner air by absorbing carbon, a useful property in polluted cities.
The uniformity of the panels also allows for a faster and less wasteful construction process. Inspired by Habitat 67 in Montreal, the Toronto Tree Tower uses prefabricated, modular construction. The foundation and other primary components are constructed on-site while individual modules are constructed at an off-site location before being lifted into place by a crane. Not only does this method cut down on waste and construction energy, but it also limits interruption to the city and the repeated modules create a visually interesting design.
While CLT has many exciting capabilities, it is a fairly new and unique material and requires some foresight in planning. According to Sloan Ritchie, the owner of a construction company in the United States, it can be difficult to make on-site adjustments to original plans when using CLT. To avoid time and energy-consuming delays, proper preparation and critical review of construction drawings should be a priority. Since CLT comes in large panels, contractors must also plan for how to store materials on-site, especially in urban settings with limited space, and designers should work with contractors to best incorporate electrical and mechanical systems into the structure. Although CLT requires careful planning and special attention to detail, it remains an efficient and cost-effective material. Additionally, clearer construction guidelines and recommendations are sure to be developed as architects and contractors continue to familiarize themselves with the material.
Building material and construction practices aside, the Toronto Tree tower is perhaps most revolutionary in its intentional design and ideology. By exploring a wooden alternative for high rise architecture, Precht steps away from the glass towers of conventional modernism and offers a glimpse into a new urban future. The rise of modern industry drew a very distinct line between the manufactured and natural worlds, a line the Toronto Tree Tower seeks to blur. Intentionally designed to reflect and incorporate nature, it nudges humanity into a more nature-cohesive future.
Large terraces provide space for various forms of vegetation, which offers many advantages. Whether residents plant trees or cultivate gardens of produce, the natural foliage will provide a natural cooling effect for the building while also providing residents with added privacy. The terraces also create lively green spaces, a luxury sometimes difficult to come across in urban environments. Despite creative and dynamic designs, many current highrises come across as cold and distinctly separate from the natural environment. By juxtaposing wooden facades and live plants, Precht creates a direct relationship between the city and nature in an effort to bridge the gap that continues to keep them apart.
The future has always been defined by shiny towers and sleek boxes, but Chris Precht offers an interesting alternative. By combining modern technologies with traditional principles, the Toronto Tree Tower reconnects cities and nature in a powerful representation of the shift into green architecture. Architecture is derived from necessity, and as people and planet continue to be divided, we need fresh ideologies and sustainable designs as we approach a new kind of future.