9 Houses That Show Why Wood Is the Material of the Future

Most people may associate wood with traditional homes, but in these innovative, modern structures, its uses are really branching out

By Kawakami Junko  / Courtesy of Houzz.com

The interest in contemporary wooden houses is growing worldwide. Among the reasons for wood’s popularity: It can be locally sourced or recycled, making it part of a sustainable society; modular production using wood is relatively easy; and a wooden building can blend seamlessly into nature. 

People have lived close to trees since ancient times and built their homes of wood for millenniums. With its organic warmth, inherent feeling of softness and eco-friendly properties, wood is an ideal construction material for the future. Here are nine examples of wooden buildings that signal the turning over of a new leaf in architecture.

1. Clean-Lined, Eco-Friendly Home in Japan

Location: Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan
Architect: Yoshiaki Amino and Heisei Corp.
Project’s main strengths: Comfortable microclimate within; built with otherwise-unwanted wood

The home is known as Ki no Katamari no Ie (House Made of Thick Timbers) and is the fruit of a collaboration between Yoshiaki Amino, a university professor and architect specializing in wooden structures, and Heisei Corp., a construction company known for high-quality carpentry and wooden architecture design. The house sprang from the architect’s desire to build a healthy living environment for his aging parents while harnessing the eco-friendly properties of wood. 

“Wood is a building material with many useful properties, such as being strong and a good thermal insulator, providing heat storage and controlling humidity. It’s perfect for creating a comfortable living environment,” Amino says. The house is built with mainly domestic Japanese cedar with low market value (due to irregularities).

A square design was used to minimize the exterior wall area and expose as little as possible to the weather. Rooftop solar panels help heat the home’s water. In addition, the kitchen is equipped with a Swiss wood-burning stove that also provides heat for a 1-ton hot-water tank used for domestic hot water and wintertime heat. 

The south-facing wall has only deep clerestory windows and side lights, which create a relaxing interior space full of indirect natural light and shade.

Why Wood?

Wood and its properties were used in a natural way to create this innovative house. Since the walls, roof and second-level floor are all made of lumber about 12 centimeters (about 5 inches) thick — normally used for structural elements such as columns, joists and beams — the house is much stronger and is more fire-resistant than conventionally built wooden houses. 

Since just enough heat is stored in the thick walls, roof and floor, the house stays at a comfortable temperature throughout the year. The architect’s mother, who lives in the home, says she has “never felt either extremely cold or extremely hot.” The wood was left unfinished, except for termite treatment, making future reuse of the timbers easy and the environmental impact low if they are disposed of.

The house contains three times the amount of wood typically used in a conventional house, but all of it was dead stock with low market value. Part of the interior wall, for example, was built with low-cost, visually irregular stud material with cracks and rounded corners, but the irregularity is what adds character to the walls. 

“Due to a lumber market that gives preference to standardized products, as well as the fact that consumers generally favor lumber that looks good, a whole lot of wood doesn’t get used,” Amino says. “We bought this lumber directly from the mill, so our money goes straight to the people working at the mill and in the forest.”

2. All-Wood Multistory Apartment Building in Sweden

Location: Sundbyberg, near Stockholm
Architect: Gert Wingårdh 
Builder: Folkhem
Project’s main strengths:Speedy, modular construction method; it takes just one minute for Sweden to grow the amount of timber used in the building

Strandparken in Sundbyberg, just outside Stockholm, is Sweden’s largest wooden structure today. The eight-story building was designed by renowned architect Gert Wingårdh and built in modules by Folkhem, a leading construction company that focuses on all-wood buildings. 

The company considers wood the only material suitable for an ecologically sustainable future as city populations expand.

Why Wood? 

“Quite simply, wood is the best building material there is,” says Sandra Frank, marketing director at Folkhem. “Living in a wooden house is healthy, and wood creates a warm, welcoming feeling. The acoustics are great, and you know you’re contributing to a sustainable future.”

It may come as no surprise that Sweden, with its plentiful forests, has a long history of building with wood, but what many people don’t realize is that a ban on building wooden structures more than two stories high was enforced in Sweden in the 19th century because of the many fires that had destroyed wooden buildings. It wasn’t until 1994 (when Swedes voted to join the European Union) that the ban was lifted and all-wood structures were reintroduced. (They must meet certain requirements related to fire resistance and other issues.) 

Today, Swedish architects are pushing the boundaries of what can be built of wood, with ever higher, bigger and bolder buildings.

“We have gathered an amazing array of facts about why we think building with wood is the future,” Frank says. “One of the most compelling is the growth rate of Swedish wood today. It takes one minute to regrow all the material used in the eight-story house. One minute!”

Folkhem hopes to build 6,000 homes before 2024. The company has commissioned well-known architects to create proposals for structures that are stunning to look at and comfortable to live in. 

“One of our main aims is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released during the building process,” Frank says. “If we build 6,000 homes in wood instead of concrete, we will save 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide.”

Watch a video about the Strandparken project and Folkhem

3. Beautifully Crafted Cottage in Scotland

Location: Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland
Architect: Sam Booth of Echo Living
Project’s main strengths: Modular construction method with a custom, almost handmade feel

Operating entirely off-grid, with solar panels and huge amounts of insulation as its secret weapon, the Brockloch Bothy is a house with plenty of light and warm spaces, and designed to make the most of its minimal square footage. 

The home’s interior is finished with 27-millimeter-thick (about 1-inch-thick) cross-laminated spruce panels imported from Italy, which come in 5-by-2.05-meter (about 16-by-8-foot) sheets that allow an entire wall to be built from a single panel.

Why Wood?

The design firm prefabricated the cottage in the workshop, then delivered it to the site. This allowed for a finer finish more akin to cabinetmaking than traditional wooden buildings built on-site.

The exterior was finished with panels made from local larch boards fitted onto the building in alternating vertical and horizontal patterns, accentuating the modular nature of the structure.

“The interior finished in wood creates a feeling of warmth and has a soothing, tactile quality unmatched by standard plaster walls,” says architect Sam Booth. “Wood also has the ability to regulate the humidity of the interior space and to store heat through its thermal mass, creating an environment that’s more evenly heated.

“Because of my background in furniture making and as a creator of wooden objects, I see Echo’s projects more as pieces of furniture placed on a landscape that people happen to live in, rather than conventional buildings,” he says.

See more of this cottage, or bothy

4. Relaxed Larch-Clad Home for Urban Downsizers in Germany

Location: Wandlitz, near Berlin
Architect: 2D+ Architekten
Project’s main strengths: Integrated furniture and storage designed along with the building

The owners, who had previously lived in a 2,150-square-foot apartment in Berlin, wanted to leave the city and live in the countryside — but with all the comforts that come with a brand-new home. To fulfill their wishes, the architects created a house like a big piece of furniture, with plenty of storage built into the walls. Except for a table and two sofas, there was no need for the owners to bring any furniture at moving-in time.

With a fireplace, a sauna with a window overlooking the garden and a custom-made kitchen incorporated into the home, the owners could keep their urban lifestyle.

Why Wood?

The house is built entirely of wood — its wood frame is finished in larch, and even the insulation is wood fiber. The built-in furniture is finished with veneers of limed oak.

“We had to deal with an ambitious space requirement on a small plot. At the same time, we didn’t want to make rooms that felt small and cramped, so we used wood to achieve a relaxed feel,” says Markus Bonauer, one of the two architects who designed the home. 

“You could say we tried to think of a wooden property in a holistic way. The house is made entirely of wood inside and out. The structure is wood, it’s insulated with wood, and it’s finished with wood. We basically left all the wood untreated — we just oiled and whitewashed it. That way, it’s completely compostable.”

View more of this all-wood house

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5. Domed Weekend Retreat in Russia

Location: Zelenograd area, north of Moscow
Project creator: Skydom
Project’s main strengths: Ability to bear extreme snow loads thanks to its shape

This unusual dome is a dream house for the owner. With a diameter of 30 feet, it has a spacious interior with a simple and cozy atmosphere — the perfect place to spend free time. The sphere-shaped house, which was built in two months, is twice as strong as an ordinary house of the same size, thanks to the shell that doubles as the structure. The exterior is covered in Siberian larch shingles and the structure and interior are pine. The pine joints, crucial to the structural strength, were designed by aerospace engineers and produced using cutting-edge technology. 

Because the interior requires no load-bearing walls, the layout is flexible. The heating cost is low because the shape of the house results in minimal heat loss.

Why Wood?

“An ecological lifestyle is not only about treating nature with respect, but also about proper and appropriate use of resources for comfort. We are absolutely sure that the future is all about smart decisions, and that’s what Skydom is,” the homeowner says.

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6. Integrated Wooden Beach House in New Zealand

Location: Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand
Architect: Julian Guthrie
Project’s main strengths: Using fallen timber from the client’s own property

Wooden buildings are very much part of the architectural vernacular in New Zealand, as wood is the dominant building material used by both the indigenous population and the Europeans who arrived later.  

During the construction of this beach house, a massive native kahikatea tree toppled on the client’s property in the city. So he asked architect Julian Guthrie whether it could be used in some way on the project. As a result, the tree was milled into interior panels, echoing the cedar siding outside.

Why Wood?

Guthrie chose wood as the dominant exterior material for several reasons. Wood weathers and helps the building blend into the natural landscape. 

The clear-oiled cedar is an ideal low-maintenance siding in a harsh coastal environment, as the oil keeps it from drying out and protects it from fungal deterioration, improving the long-term durability of the wood while allowing it to weather naturally. Left unstained, cedar bleaches to a silvery gray within a few years. 

Guthrie regularly chooses wood as the primary material for his designs. “It offers so much versatility in finish and texture, whether left natural or painted,” he says. “The natural quality of wood imparts an organic warmth to buildings that’s important in an increasingly complex and urbanized society.”

See more of this beach house

7. Modular House Mixing Wood and Reused Materials in Chile

Location: Curacaví, Santiago Metropolitan Region, Chile
Architect: James&Mau Arquitectura (Jaime Gaztelu and Mauricio Galeano), partners with Infiniski, a construction company specializing in sustainable modular houses
Project’s main strengths: Using recycled pallets and reclaimed wood throughout

The Manifest House, built by Infiniski, a construction company specializing in sustainable houses in Chile, Colombia and Spain, is so named to represent the company’s philosophy: the use of modular and bioclimatic design (to reduce energy consumption); recycled and reused materials; non-polluting construction systems; and integrated use of renewable energy.

The house is constructed from three shipping containers plus a double-skin facade made of wood. One layer is fixed horizontal wood slats, while the other is made from old wooden pallets that can be opened or closed individually to control solar radiation.

Why Wood?

The architects used wood for the facade not only for better integration of the house within the landscape, but to create a surface that acts as a ventilated air chamber. They used recycled pallets and local pine with a matte varnish, since it’s inexpensive and easy to get in the area. They also used a wood known as Oregon pine, reclaimed from a demolition site, to build the indoor furniture. 

The operable pallet panels enable the house to “dress and undress” through its double wooden skin. The pallets are opened in the winter to allow the sun to heat the metal surface of the container walls, providing emissions-free heat for the house. In the summer, the pallets remain closed to protect the house from solar gain while also providing natural air conditioning with the ventilated air chamber created by the double skin.

Although the architects say they’d love to work with wood even more, they note there are some difficulties with using it in construction. It’s an expensive material if you want it to meet all the requirements of a project and if it comes from certified forests. It also requires careful maintenance that not everyone is willing to do. The architects therefore generally use wood more for interior details than for a structure or facade.

They usually use reclaimed wood from demolished houses and buildings. They found the wood for this house in Valparaiso, Chile. The Oregon pine is about 100 years old, so the lumber has more than stabilized.

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8. High-Rise Towers that Merge into the Forest in Austria

Location: Katschberg, Austria
Architect: Matteo Thun & Partners
Project’s main strengths: Merging the tall towers visually with the landscape through exterior wood latticework

The two residential towers of Edel:Weiss Residence are integrated into the landscape on the Katschberg Pass between the Austrian states of Salzburg and Carinthia. The 66 units, the winter residences of ski and alpine enthusiasts, contain no new infrastructure for electricity and plumbing since the heat for the building is supplied by a nearby hotel with a biomass generator fueled by waste wood.

Larch, a local wood, was used for the buildings’ facade and much of the furniture inside.

Why Wood?

“Wood is part of the soul of the area here in the Austrian mountains. Architecture needs to visually merge into the natural setting in order to stand the aesthetic test of time,” says Italian architect Matteo Thun. “It also needs to be sustainable, and to last for years.” Local larch was available near the construction site, so it needed to travel only a short distance, helping to minimize pollution.

“Wood develops a patina through coming into contact with light, air, humidity and so on, and takes on more character with time,” Thun says. “It’s warm and smooth to the touch while being solid, thus conferring confidence.”

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9. Low-Energy House Built by Brothers in Denmark

Location: Aarhus, Denmark
Architect: Rasmus Jensen Arkitekt  
Carpenter: Per Clemens Jensen
Contractor: Brix & Jensen
Project’s main strengths: A family project in low-energy housing

Family is important, especially the bond between siblings. Building a house might seem like a daunting project, but it didn’t faze these brothers: The younger one is a carpenter and the older an architect. Together they created a beautiful, low-energy wooden house that stands on one of the four residential plots of an interdisciplinary development project called Home for Life. Several companies participated in the pilot project to build low-energy homes.

Why Wood?

The house consumes only 1,700 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. By comparison, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer in 2014 was 10,932 kwh, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

This home’s low usage stems from the extra wood insulation as well as the triple-pane, energy-efficient windows with composite spacers. Although not connected to central heating, the building’s geothermal heating and cooling system keeps the well-insulated space comfortable year round.

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