Crunch time for wood flats

AUSTRALIA's tallest wooden apartment building now faces its toughest test - customers.

AUSTRALIA's tallest wooden apartment building now faces its toughest test - customers.

The commercial success, or otherwise, of the 23 apartments now for sale in the 10-storey Forte building in Melbourne's Docklands is the last link in a chain of innovation.

And it's a factor that may make or break the use of alternative building material cross-laminated timber (CLT) in large residential projects around the country.

Construction giant Lend Lease made a deliberate decision not to sell units in its innovative new $11 million Forte building until it was complete in a bid to counter "preconceptions" from buyers about the acoustic and structural integrity of timber dwellings.

"We made a very deliberate choice to quell preconceptions by putting the evidence in front of people. In every respect you can't tell it's any different," Lend Lease head of operations development Daryl Patterson said.

The building, which is being reviewed for five-star Green Star "as built" rating, has fully integrated water and electricity monitors in each apartment and a communal laundry drying area and garden on its rooftop.

Forte was a speculative risk for Lend Lease in an industry with a poor track record in product innovation, where most projects only get off the ground once they are pre-sold to obtain finance.

But the company mitigated the risk by spending three to four years of due diligence on the building before assembling it. "We satisfied ourselves long before we placed the order for the material that everything would work," Mr Patterson said.

CLT uses wood planks glued together to form lightweight panels as strong and rigid as traditional materials, allowing tall structures to be built without concrete or steel frames.

It has been used extensively in residential buildings in Europe for the past decade.

A Lend Lease-commissioned study by RMIT's Centre for Design found that over its 50-year life, the Forte building would create 22 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional concrete and steel construction.

Now that it had a completed CLT prototype, Lend Lease would be looking at other sites to construct similar projects, he said.

Research around preferences for multistorey residential living suggest people were most comfortable with apartments in six to eight-storey developments, rather than taller projects.

But the economics of today's construction methods tend to push towards larger scale developments to make them financially viable, Mr Patterson said.

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