For centuries, wood was civilization’s primary construction material, but as the use of concrete, glass and steel grew, wood was largely relegated to flooring and interior paneling.

An exhibition at the National Building Museum in Washington challenges that narrow use. It suggests that tomorrow’s buildings will or should be constructed of wood. The exhibition, “Timber City,” highlights the wide range of benefits offered by cutting-edge methods of timber construction, showing that wood is a modern, strong and versatile material.

The show highlights the two winners of the Tall Wood Building Prize, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “One in New York City and one in Portland, Oregon, are two premier cross-laminated (engineered, pre-fabricated) timber buildings going up right now,” said the exhibition’s curator, Susan Piedmont-Palladino. “They’re similar structures. Both buildings are using this material … in slightly different ways, but the goal is to build right in the middle of the city.”

And that’s what makes timber the perfect choice in a busy district like New York’s Manhattan, where construction speed and efficiency are vital. “Buildings go up very quickly. The materials for the building — the walls and the floors and the ceilings — are manufactured off-site. They come on a truck, pre-fabricated,” Piedmont-Palladino said. “So a work crew armed with power screwdrivers can basically assemble the building extremely quickly. There’s no long-term curing of concrete” needed.

Information panels in the exhibition explain that concrete manufacturing is the world’s third-largest source of greenhouse gases, and that harvesting timber — a renewable resource — has a lower environmental cost than mining the materials needed to make steel and concrete.