Dezeen Magazine

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Architects not adopting biomaterials are "dinosaurs" says Michael Green

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."

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, adding that movements in architecture in the latter half of the 20th century ignored the problem. "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 Roseburg 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."

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 architects."

The portraits of Green are by Julia Loglisci.

Timber Revolution logo
Illustration by Yo Hosoyamada

Timber Revolution
This article is part of Dezeen's Timber Revolution series, which explores the potential of mass timber and asks whether going back to wood as our primary construction material can lead the world to a more sustainable future.