For centuries, wood was civilization’s primary construction material. But in modern times, concrete, glass and steel seemed to be the only choices for big buildings.

Now, a new exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington challenges that idea.

Recent innovations in timber technology, especially “cross-laminated” timber, could change the way tomorrow’s skyscrapers are built.

Cross-laminated timber is made of several pieces of wood. The pieces are connected at 90-degree angles. “It’s what we call ‘dimensionally stable,'” explains Susan Piedmont-Palladino, the exhibition’s curator. “It doesn’t move around. And it can be manufactured from small trees that otherwise have very little economic value.”

Two premier cross-laminated timber buildings are going up right now in New York and Portland, Oregon, Piedmont-Palladino says. The projects share the top prize from the 2015 Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

New technologies and building systems also enable longer wood spans, taller walls and higher buildings. Large-scale timber products are flexible, strong and fire resistant, the Agriculture Department says.

Better for the environment

Not only is timber strong, but it is also the only building material that can reduce carbon emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. Concrete manufacturing is the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gases, according to the exhibition, and harvesting timber — a renewable resource — has a lower environmental cost than mining the materials needed to make steel or concrete.

Inside of building constructed with timber (Will Pryce/Courtesy of Waugh Thistleton Architects)
In 2009, London’s Murray Grove became the first tall wooden building with all-wood structure, floors and elevator cores. (Will Pryce/Courtesy of Waugh Thistleton Architects)

Timber may not be the best building material in every situation, but the National Building Museum predicts that soon there will be a lot more wooden buildings around the world.

The National Building Museum’s Timber City exhibition runs through September 10.

Top image: The award-winning 10-story residential building known as 475 West 18th, the first structural timber building in New York City (Courtesy of SHoP Architects PC)

This was drawn from a Voice of America article.