epa-efeLago Peñuelas, Chile

The Torre Experimental Peñuelas is the tallest building constructed entirely with wood in Latin America, a structure that rises 20 meters (66 feet) off the ground and emerged from a project aimed at promoting a sustainable construction system to ease Chile's housing crunch.

The six-story building is in the Peñuelas Lagoon National Reserve, located 98 kilometers (about 60 miles) west of Santiago, on a lot measuring 118.94 sq. meters (1,280 sq. feet).

The construction of each housing unit - one per floor - was done at a factory over three months, while the foundation set.

Final assembly at the site was completed last week and took about five days.

During the next 18 months, the structure will be the subject of a study to investigate its physical behavior in the environment, allowing the project team to draw conclusions that will open the way for the construction of public housing towers made out of wood.

"In Chile, we have a housing shortage and it's impossible to respond to that challenge through the traditional construction system due to time (constraints), due to the (limited) capacity of companies and due to the carbon footprint and environmental pollution of traditional construction systems," Juan Jose Ugarte, director of the Catholic University's Center for Innovation in Wood, told EFE.

The center is carrying out the project, which is backed by the Housing Ministry and Chile's Imagen Foundation.

"With systems like this, environmentally friendly, with local resources ... with rapid construction and taking into account the challenges of global warming, we can respond with a sustained public policy over time to solve the housing shortage," Ugarte said.

High-rise construction with wood is made possible thanks to ATS technology, which consists of incorporatining tensile steel rebar inside the structure, allowing seismic resistance to increase.

The building has a traditional concrete foundation that is 1.5 meters (five feet) deep, half the standard in traditional construction, and also has an air-tight coating that prevents the wood from coming into contact with the subsoil, which can lead to moisture damage.

Ugarte, who is also head of the Corporacion Chilena de la Madera, said the wooden structures were long-lasting, kept out noise and resisted fire, adding that the so-called "ventilated skin" technology made apartments cooler and reduced energy consumption.

The Torre Experimental Peñuelas will be used as the model for the construction of the first Chilean public-housing tower made of wood, the Edificio Iconico de Rancagua project, which is expected to have about 8,000 sq. meters (86,111 sq. feet) of space and be completed by 2020.

Each apartment, offering 50 sq. meters (537 sq. feet) of space, will cost around 30 million pesos (about $45,000) and have two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living-dining room and kitchen.

The challenge, according to Ugarte, is to make people see that a wooden house is not a "temporary refuge," one of the most common notions among residents, but can actually be a better structure than traditional buildings.

Pedro Bouchon, vice chancellor for research at the Catholic University, told EFE that the "great challenge" was to demonstrate that it was possible to build vertically and that this building met the different needs of society - "durability, energy efficiency, price and resistance against earthquakes."

To show the benefits of this type of construction, Torre Experimental Peñuelas reserved one of its six stories - the fifth - as a model floor so that the general public can learn about the comfort and quality of the apartments in wood structures.

The model apartment is furnished and has wall cladding, electric appliances and tile floors, giving visitors a real experience.

According to Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) figures, the housing stock in urban areas in Latin America and the Caribbean is 6 percent below the required level and 94 percent of structures are of poor quality.

Chile's housing shortage is estimated at 500,000 units, according to a study by the Chilean Construction Association.

By Ruben Figueroa.