What would our cityscapes look like without skyscrapers? It’s pretty hard to imagine.

These buildings have become part and parcel of metropolises across the globe. While New York is probably one of the first cities that springs to mind when you think about skyscrapers, Chicago was actually home to the world’s first. As The Guardian explains, people were sceptical when engineer William Le Baron Jenney designed his steel-framed building in 1884. But the trend soon caught on.

It is estimated that there will be over 16,000 skyscrapers across the globe by 2020, The Guardian reported. But could these buildings be about to have a facelift?

Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry has announced plans to build the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper in Japan. The 350m 70-storey timber tower is set to be completed in 2041 and will feature green balconies built around the building’s exterior. According to BBC News, just 10% of the skyscraper will be steel, while indigenous wood will make up 180,000 cubic metres.

So, are timber skyscrapers on the rise?

The use of wood to build skyscrapers is certainly no new concept; there are numerous examples across the globe – the world’s current tallest wooden building is a 53m-high block of student flats in Vancouver. However, drives for sustainability and biophilic design could well see this become a growing trend.

In fact, the Japanese government passed the Promotion of Wood in Public Buildings Act. This, The Week notes, requires all government buildings of up to three storeys to be constructed from wood or to utilise wood as the country has a vast amount of wood available. Forest covers more than two thirds of the country, over twice the global average. The trend is also being driven by the emergence of new types of ultra-strong timber.

Speaking to the publication, leader of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at Cambridge University, Dr Michael Ramage, explained: “There’s a whole bunch of new materials made out of wood that are structurally able to build big buildings.”

Technological advances are also sure to reduce the building costs currently associated with such developments.

But will these wooden skyscrapers face the same scepticism as Jenney did in 1884?

Ramage believes timber buildings suffer from a “huge perception problem.”

One of the biggest concerns is fire-resistance. However, cross-laminated timber (CLT) is becoming increasingly common and, as BBC News explains, it “is designed to be fire resistant and unlike steel, remains more structurally stable when subjected to high temperatures.”

Ramage adds: “Timber doesn’t burn in the way the public imagines. The great fires of London and Chicago were both sparked by very small pieces of wood. Very big pieces of wood are quite hard to set on fire — they aren’t kindling material.”

What about the environmental impact?

The use of wood is actually environmentally-friendly, especially in countries like Japan where there is a vast amount of wood available. Whereas steel and concrete buildings are thought to be responsible for 5% and 8% of global emissions, respectively, wood actually stores carbon, BBC News explains. So wooden skyscrapers could help to reduce city pollution and cut global greenhouse gases.

Sumitomo Forestry envisions a future of green cities. In a statement, the company told Dezeen: “The aim is to create … environmentally-friendly and timber-utilising cities where they become forests through increased use of wooden architecture for high-rise buildings.”

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