How long can wood last?

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 02009 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Technology   chat 0 Comments

On my last trip to England I visited the cathedral in Ely and was struck by the longevity of large structural beams made from a material that I dont really think of as a millennial building material… wood. The main beams that support the 170 foot tall “lantern tower” called the Octagon are about 700 years old, and show no sign of deterioration (pictured above and below).

While some of the joinery has been updated and serviced, the main structural elements are original and have taken the maintenance gracefully.  What’s more, I am certain these are not the oldest structural wood beams in the world (Here are some suggested by commenters: 1 & 2)  Below is a photo looking up toward the Octagon that these beams support:

We are regularly researching and making estimates on how long various materials can last for the Clock project.  This cathedral reminds me that maintaining a dry environment and institutional continuity are really what makes something last on a millennial scale..


  • “a Buddhist temple near the ancient capital city of Nara. The Horyu-ji temple is believed to have been built at the beginning of the eighth century (c. 711) and possibly even earlier, as one of the hinoki (Japanese cypress) posts appears to have been felled in the year 594. ”

  • When I visited the Tower of London some years ago, the guide pointed out very old oak trees growing outside a chapel. They were planted as saplings by the chapel’s builders, with the idea that hundreds of years later the same wood as used in the chapel would be available for repairs.

  • For old structural wood, check out Japanese temple sites. According to ancient principles, all joinery is done with wood on wood fasteners and very close tolerance joinery cuts and chiselings that are built to settle into a long-term, close-fitting joint.

    A good book on the topic is The Genius of Japanese Carpentry: The Secrets of a Craft by Azby Brown. Though the showcased temple is not using 700 year old wood, it may lead to other temples that are still that old (in infrastructure).

  • Davide Bocelli

    The pagoda of the Hōryū-ji temple is a UNESCO site and experts say was built around A.D. 594

  • Phil Wilson

    The following two groups at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, seem to have done some extensive research into the feasibility of timber use in multi-storey buildings, especially with regard to earthquake resistance.

    I seem to recall that some ancient Japanese temples and shrines also have extensive earthquake protection involving foundations “floating” on layers of sand and stone. The grain size of the sand or stones plays a significant role in isolating the structure from the earthquake oscillations. Layers of different grain sizes dampen different frequency oscillations. Perhaps the boundary between layers also helps.

  • Alan P. Hayes

    Maintenance is the main determiner of longevity in this situation. Growing up, this was known as keeping a roof on.

  • Pingback: Planning ahead: 700 year old trees | Business is Personal()

  • Thats such a great idea!

  • Have to agree thats such a nice idea. Maybe every building using wood should consider this!

  • Sebastian Bales

    How beautiful!

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