This interview took place in June 2023, when the world was looking at New York City being engulfed by a yellow and pungent smoke. The source of that smoke—the most severe wildfires to ever affect Canada’s forests—were quickly forgotten.
Lindsey Wikstrom’s recent book, Designing the Forest and Other Mass Timber Futures (Routledge, 2023), is a vast and multidisciplinary research on mass timber and its environmental, social, and economic implications. The book is not a simple investigation of a new construction technique, but a narrative of the complex system of relationships between nature, humans, and technology: an ecology where the forest and the city, the nonhuman and the human benefit from each other through a new political dialectic.
VALERIO FRANZONE Designing the Forest is a vast research project with a strong multidisciplinary and analytical perspective. What sparked your interest in this topic and how did you conduct the research?
LINDSEY WIKSTROM In 2019 I worked as a project architect in the design of a factory for Airbus in Germany. They wanted the most sustainable factory of the future, which meant a low-carbon and mass timber structure. I thought it was great to learn about mass timber in a country that I've always been told was 30 years ahead of the US in this technology. But when I arrived in Hamburg, I didn’t see a single building made of mass timber: we struggled to find precedents, and cost information was difficult to utilise. I thought, “If mass timber is so great, why isn’t it everywhere?” Some pointed to the building code being outdated, others said it was the market. I think a lack of exposure to mass timber as a climate solution has an effect. But there’s also a cultural and spiritual dilemma when proposing a climate solution that involves trees. People have trouble imagining trees as regenerative, being ok with harvesting them, and not being able to visualise the trade-offs and scales of carbon very well.
There’s a cultural and spiritual dilemma when proposing a climate solution that involves trees. People have trouble imagining trees as regenerative, being ok with harvesting them.
I started teaching an advanced MArch studio at Columbia GSAPP to introduce students to nature and landscapes of production. Rather than design a building, I asked students to design the flow of materials from the forest to the city.
My bibliography for the studio and for my book included everything written about mass timber (they are few) but also environmental historians and philosophers including Paul Warde who wrote The Invention of Sustainability: Nature and Destiny,1 Jane Bennett who wrote Vibrant Matter,2 and Eduardo Kohn who wrote How Forests Think.3 I wanted to understand what was missing in that small existing library: issues about greenwashing, ownership, colonialism and the complex task of measuring quality. I took the students on field visits. In the Black Rock Forest, we interviewed a forester who tracks the mobility of forests—which blew my mind—and introduced us to the forest ecology debate which challenges the non-biological definitions of natives, invasives, and succession. I visited Element5, which produces cross-laminated timber panels and I’ve studied the evolution of most companies in this space. I’ve continued to learn a lot about production facilities and forestry at the International Mass Timber Conferences and through relationships with people in the industry. And that’s how I started my research.
VF The book is not simply an essay about mass timber but it also incorporates characteristics of an encyclopedia and an atlas in a compact form. It is scientific and critical, but still discursive. How did you develop this editorial format and what were your inspirations?
LW Part of the goal was to get the book outside the design world to people from different fields. So I created a simple 4 chapter structure: an “introduction” about urgency, followed by “past”, “present”, and “future” chapters. Between them are the “Equivalents” pages, which visually explore how to represent carbon in a new way. Representation is really important because, if we need to design a supply chain, we need to be able to draw it. So, I’m asking, “What sort of drawing can enable an architect to be a change agent?” For example, in 2017, I made Three Material Stories, a series of equirectangular projection drawings for Embodied Energy and Design4 representing unrolled supply chains for steel, wood, and concrete. In the drawings, the architect views these efforts as constellations around them, linked to their decision to use wood, steel, or concrete. Everything is scaled according to the viewer’s familiarity with the process.
Representation is really important because, if we need to design a supply chain, we need to be able to draw it.
In school, I was influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s World Game,5 and his Spaceship Earth,6 which is a big reference for the final chapter of my book, “Underpinning”. It is simultaneously inspiring and alarming that an architect might have so much agency as to redesign the whole earth. Fuller wanted to optimise the flow of resources and was optimistic about solving the world's problems by his own logic. Today, we know that climate solutions are incredibly multifaceted. It’s more important to think pluralistically, what Keller Easterling calls a contagion of approaches as opposed to a singular logic. I enjoyed applying that lineage and thinking to mass timber.
It’s more important to think pluralistically, what Keller Easterling calls a contagion of approaches as opposed to a singular logic.
Unfolding the world using Fuller’s Dymaxion projection shows the world’s forest as one continuous space shared by all land-dwelling living things.
VF Mass timber offers a series of opportunities. Can you give us an introduction to the topic and tell us the advantages and the limits, and their implications, compared to other materials widely used nowadays?
LW At the global scale, the built environment contributes 50% of the greenhouse gases through its embodied and operational energy. Mass timber would solve a huge chunk of the problem, and that's why I’m so interested in it.
Then there is the regional scale, the forest scale. People usually ask if everything was made of mass timber, would it cause deforestation? That’s a difficult question. Timber companies would lose money if they didn't replant the trees and so most replant more than they harvest. Mass timber incentivises replantation because it increases the value of forested land as it competes with urban or agricultural development. It means that keeping the forest, absorbing carbon while it’s growing and then storing it when it becomes mass timber can be profitable. Carbon markets are a huge TBD and there are a lot of economic and ethical questions about them. For example, who should get paid for storing carbon? Should timber companies that would otherwise keep their forests get paid to store carbon? Or should carbon markets be tuned to incentivise those smallholders who otherwise would be forced financially to clear the forest? These issues will affect the spread of mass timber.
If everything was made of mass timber, would it cause deforestation?
At the building scale, we should replace all the concrete and steel that we can with mass timber (not all elements can be exchanged, but many can). In the US, this switch is most cost-effective for buildings between 6 and 18 stories: a higher building is more technologically challenging, and a shorter building is typically wood anyways.
Then there is the intimate scale of the body, like the effects of terpenes on an occupant’s health. Some trees contain terpenes, which are oils that remain in the wood even once it's turned into mass timber and that kill the bacteria on its surface. Terpenes also participate in the forest bathing effect, relaxing our body by reducing our cortisol level, and mass timber maintains this property. These measurable effects on the body don’t exist in mineral-based materials.
Western spirituality was historically entangled with colonialism, and that inheritance embedded the belief of “man’s dominion over nature.”
All of these are various scalar reasons why mass timber is an important new material.
There are limits to overcome, the economic ones that I mentioned, the limits of the building codes, and insurance. Codes and insurance are difficult because of the way material performance is measured in some cities as prescriptive rather than performative. I also think a top limitation is religion. I know it sounds strange, but western spirituality was historically entangled with colonialism, and that inheritance embedded the belief of “man’s dominion over nature”, organised in the Papal Bull of 1492. This mindset persists. I am proposing an active relationship with the forest, one without dominion that is mutually interdependent and beneficial.
VF It’s interesting how the environment, in the mainstream debate, is an anthropocentric narrative: these days all the media are talking about New York being engulfed by smoke, but who’s talking about the most severe wildfires that ever affected Canada?
LW Yes, good point, as if it was uncontrollable. Forest fires may start with lighting, but they can persist because of drought and reduced care. To prevent mega-fires, we should do small burns, but still today governments don’t understand the difference. That’s how Indigenous groups designed the forest to make it an edible landscape and prevent big disasters. Fires are another historically western hang-up.
Forest fires may start with lighting, but they can persist because of drought and reduced care.
VF Considering the whole industry behind mass timber, how can the whole chain oppose the current capitalist labour system based on inequality and exploitation, and achieve an economy of scale that better distributes wealth?
The demographic of the ownership and labour in tree cultivations shows mostly a world based on patriarchy and colonialism, where there’s no space for cultural and gender diversity or Indigenous knowledge. Rural economies are the continuation of old exploitative regimes and this is a fundamental issue to solve in order to shift towards a system of reparation. How can this paradigm based on exclusion be radically changed?
LW First, we need to kick-start this new material era. For architects, it’s important to be educated and know how to design with mass timber. Advocating is another effort they can do. There's a lot to learn, so architects need to be part of that effort, talking to building departments, insurance companies and clients. My book is a representation of this new role for architects. It’s not all on architects though, there is the need for both demand and supply to be addressed simultaneously. To kick start this new material era, we need people like Sandra Lupine,7 who is leading the design of the supply chain of mass timber in Michigan, matchmaking, and helping businesses get into this space.
The next gate is where we want to go, making sure that the process is ethical, and that the benefits go to people who have been historically disenfranchised.
Then, the next gate is where we want to go, making sure that the process is ethical, and that the benefits go to people who have been historically disenfranchised. For example, Chandra Robinson is an architect in Portland leading an effort at LEVER Architecture to establish a social and ethical certification for BIPOC-owned wood called Forest to Frame.8 Achieving such results requires capitalism in a way and, for example, I think of Anna Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World.9 which uses capitalism as a thing to bump up against. I think that it’s an important mindset because capitalism isn't going away. I believe it's possible to create different economies; knowing that architects can advocate for these economic processes and regimes is powerful because what we do with materials is very political and social.
Knowing that architects can advocate for these economic processes and regimes is powerful because what we do with materials is very political and social.
Since Europeans arrived in this country, land management and land ownership have been based on exclusion, millions of acres of land were systematically and illegally stolen from Indigenous Nations and African Americans. It’s a system that needs to be repaired, it’s a big challenge in a country where there's so much private property: 90% of New York state is privately owned.
Usually in this country, when a non-white person inherits a forest, they can easily be burdened by the costs of maintaining it, left without infrastructural support and are forced to sell it. This is systemic because there is little infrastructure that helps to organise properties as a bigger and more collective territory. In Europe there are wood clusters, which are several small businesses and forests huddled together identified by governments as clusters, and therefore protected and not in competition with others. In the US there’s always competition, the hope for a small company is to get big or be bought by a big one, which owns many parts of the supply chain. In my chapter called “Verticality”, I talk about Levitt, a developer who owned much of the supply chain to control the cost of building housing. This helped Levitt to avoid unions and was supported by the banks which provided loans backed by deeds that could only be accessed by white Americans. Wood clusters are interesting because they’re vertical while keeping small companies resilient and the benefits remain accessible. They preserve local knowledge, keeping people more involved in the forest's potential and preservation. Verticality is complex. Big actors create more global flows while operating with extreme bias, but a diversity of owners is the easiest way to spread the wealth at a regional scale.
Wood clusters are interesting because they’re vertical while keeping small companies resilient and the benefits remain accessible.
VF When we talk about sustainability the general narrative is often human-centred: we protect natural environments because we need them to survive, the human is an active subject contrary to the nonhuman that is a passive object. How can mass timber change our mindset about how we conceive nature, its multispecies, and transcalar character and relationships? How can mass timber be part of a non-anthropocentric future of repair where we understand nature and its languages to give it legal status and authority?
Many forests are part of a management process of the environment that characterises the Anthropocene. Is there the risk that a wider demand for mass timber could affect an already weak natural system?
LW The promise of mass timber is that we can build entire cities using renewable materials, reducing our reliance on mining and industrial heat. Renewable materials can become not only the structure and the finishes of the building but also its foundation. That's the goal. And the relationship between the city and landscapes should reciprocally help both to thrive, while with extractive processes, the city wins and the landscape loses. In other words, plant-based cities can improve the forest. Our built environment would look radically different because it would reflect the species and the materials that are regionally grown.
The idea of reciprocal relationships implies repair, new agreements, and languages formed as materials are traded between forests and cities in new ways. Giving back to a forest what it needs and wants is an exciting unknown part of the design process. To give back to a forest, we should establish forests with personhood and councils that represent them. This approach doesn't decentralise humans, humans are actually important in making this possible. Phrases like post-humanist landscapes are difficult for me to imagine because we've already changed the climate so dramatically through industrial and colonisation processes, we have an ethical responsibility to take a very active role in repairing that climate. The narrative that nature needs to be untouched by humans is somewhat dangerous. We have the ability to do reparative work, and that work should be central. The kind of effort that we create in the world and towards the forest is what matters, not whether we should do work or not. What's urgent today is that we use renewable materials wherever possible.
The narrative that nature needs to be untouched by humans is somewhat dangerous.
To answer your second question, once we have integrated mass timber into cities, we need to design replanting programs to incentivize biodiversity. Currently, mass timber is made with spruce, pine, and fir, but it can be made with many more genera. Using biodiverse mass timber products requires a whole host of characters from scientists, engineers, code specialists, builders, and architects to envision the future of local tree species. Architects need to imagine how the thousands of tree species might change the city, structurally, aesthetically, and culturally.
Beyond trees, there is a whole universe of building parts from finishes, hinges, screws, adhesives, films, and elements that need to be bio-based. Not only will we build with trees, but also soil, mycelium, uncut stone, rice and corn husks, algae, hemp, etc.
Architects need to imagine how the thousands of tree species might change the city, structurally, aesthetically, and culturally.
VF Your office Mattaforma is delivering several projects using mass timber. What are the main challenges related to this material shift? Considering that architecture is an economic and political process, how does the architect have agency in establishing a circular economy? What’s their role?
LW We have two mass timber projects in the pipeline, both with the same client. They want a single-family house and an industrial facility and are very interested in becoming a builder specialising in mass timber. A single-family house is typically already built with wood framing, so we're looking at how this project becomes a teaching tool. The process of constructing can build knowledge that they can use for the industrial facility and beyond. The client will learn about the whole process, the coordination required with manufacturers and specialists and what it means to build half of the building in a factory and assemble prefabricated elements on site. Then, the client will learn how mass timber changes over time and how to take care of it. In that way, a home is a perfect demonstration project for someone like this.
One of the most challenging things to develop with clients is an end-of-life story, a plan for the building to be deconstructed, recycled, or have a second life.
For both projects, we're talking to local and global mass timber manufacturers. There are a lot of considerations when thinking about who to partner with: lead times, panel sizes, species, travel distance, and experience. Mass timber is not a commodity and every manufacturer has different machining capabilities. The client came to us with an enthusiasm for the material system, not expertise in the process; relying on us to answer questions like “Where should we be sourcing? How do you measure sustainability in this context?” We approach these questions as a creative endeavour rather than a technical one. This means that we meet with many manufacturers to learn about their interests and motivations, what they are researching and what they would want to see in this project, and it’s not straightforward. For example, some manufacturers that are close by and source from industrial forests might take months to deliver the material, whereas others that are farther away and source from polyculture forests take weeks. It’s rarely clear who is most sustainable because it depends on the project site, timeline, budget, and builder. Designing with mass timber makes architecture even more complex.
Regarding the circular economy, one of the most challenging things to develop with clients (no matter the scale) is an end-of-life story, a plan for the building to be deconstructed, recycled, or have a second life. When the project is a home, this is difficult to imagine, because clients want their homes to last for generations. But, for The Nursery at Public Records, a music venue in New York, it was welcomed because the possibility of deconstruction was on the table as a sustainability metric from day one. They were interested in the project being modular, reconfigurable, disassembled, packaged, moved, and reconstructed. Typology and scale play important roles in this regard.
VF Being a subject involving different disciplines, processes, and facts, and being a book full of drawings, I expected a diagram to visualise this vast and complex system: a sort of Charles Jencks’s “Evolutionary Tree”. Can you design it?
LW Here it is, a first pass at a living drawing of the lineage of mass timber represented as a tree with roots in forestry practice, a canopy of mass timber milestones, and nutrients (or books) in the air, water, and soil.
For the last 35 years, mass timber has relied on trail blazers, risk takers, and many firsts.
Lindsey Wikstrom is the Founding Principal of Mattaforma (recognised as Cultured Magazine’s Young Architects 2023) and has taught at Columbia GSAPP, Syracuse Architecture, and Cornell Architecture, Art, and Planning. She holds an M.Arch from Columbia University, where she was awarded the Charles McKim Prize, Visualization Award, and Avery 6 Award. Wikstrom is also the recipient of the SOM Prize. Her research on renewable and reclaimed materials has been published in Embodied Energy and Design, Broken Nature, Faktur, Cite, e-flux, Urban Omnibus, among others. She lectured at Prada's Possible Conversation series, Building Green Conference, University of Portland, and University of Arizona. She was also the organiser and moderator of Material Worlds, a speaker series hosted by MoMA's Emilio Ambasz Institute, which expanded the conversation about sustainability beyond mass timber to interrogate the wide variety of materials found in the built environment.
Valerio Franzone is an architect licensed in Italy and the UK. He holds a Ph.D. from the “Villard d’Honnecourt” International Doctorate in Architecture (IUAV, Venice), and his work focuses on the relationships among architecture, humanity, and nature. A founding partner of 2A+P and 2A+P Architettura, he later established Valerio Franzone Architetto. His projects have been awarded in international competitions and presented at exhibitions such as the International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia. His projects and texts are published in magazines including Domus, Abitare, Volume, KoozArch, and Il Giornale dell'Architettura.com.
1 Paul Warde, The Invention of Sustainability: Nature and Destiny, c. 1500-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018
2 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. Duke University Press, 2010.
3 Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
4 David Benjamin. Embodied Energy and Design: Making Architecture Between Metrics and Narratives. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2018.
5 R. Buckminster Fuller, World Game (1969)
6 R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth  (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1971).
7 Sandra Lupien is the Director of MassTimber@MSU, a program at Michigan State University [online]
9 Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2015)