Mass Timber: A Construction Revolution Rooted in Forests

Mass timber systems are a relatively new category of off-site, engineered wood products that provide a number of diverse benefits—from storing carbon to supporting rural job growth and providing a healthier place to live and work.
By Pat Layton
March 23, 2021

Architects and builders often find inspiration from the past as they focus on designing and building for the future. By using mass timber technologies in the built environment, that notion is delivering multiple sustainability benefits.

Mass timber systems are a relatively new category of offsite, engineered wood products that provide a number of diverse benefits—from storing carbon to supporting rural job growth and providing a healthier place to live and work.

It might surprise some that a modern revolution in building technology has its roots in forests. But mass timber is a long way from traditional wood construction. And it holds tremendous societal potential when it comes to issues the public cares about—climate, lower carbon footprint, clean water, clean air, enhanced biodiversity, more recreational opportunities and green jobs for local communities.

A growing number of architects are well versed in mass timber construction. That is because, if widely adopted, mass timber is the only structural material with real potential to alter the course of climate change. In these systems, wood is often exposed so that the structure becomes part of the décor or aesthetic of the building. This allows the technology to preserve the experiential, aesthetic qualities of wood, such as its warmth, beauty, organic quality, texture, grain, and its ability to control humidity and moisture. There is also increasing evidence of the human health and wellness benefits of building with wood including reducing stress and improving cognitive function and creativity.

Add to the list mass timber’s potential to revolutionize the construction process for the better. It’s more efficient, its components are built off-site, which expedites the building process and reduces construction site noise, waste and disruption.

The built environment contributes some 40% of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, so making a commitment to designing buildings with wood derived from renewable, well-managed forests that store carbon is a next crucial step toward a sustainable future.

Sourcing mass timber from sustainably managed forests like those certified to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standards increases its benefits. SFI-certified wood is a sustainable, natural, and renewable resource and the SFI label means that the forest where the wood comes from is managed sustainably to ensure many benefits, like mitigating climate change. SFI standards include strict measures on key sustainability issues related to biodiversity, soils, and water providing mass timber with even more environmental, social and economic value.

And while mass timber products like Glue Laminated Timber (Glulam) have been around since the 1940s, new mass timber innovations are becoming common technologies. Led by companies such as SmartLam, StructurLam and Katerra, innovations include dowel-laminated timber, cross-laminated timber, and mass plywood panels using high-tech structural adhesives or hardwood dowels to combine separate layers of wood together to form large mass timber panels to create floors, roofs and walls.

Mass timber panels and beams are fire-resistant, can be used to build complex wood structures, and are pre-cut using computerized cutting machinery, thus offering precision, quality and a lower carbon footprint. Buildings made of mass timber also offer good seismic performance and perform well against fire risk.

Think back to junior high school science class when you first learned trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow, then store the carbon and produce oxygen, thus not only reducing greenhouse gases but improving air quality.

Wood is energy efficient, with a third of the embodied energy of steel and one-fifth that of concrete. Wood has 65% less weight than steel or concrete, so foundations require less concrete, less labor and less construction time—by at least 25%. And mass timber allows for taller wood structures, which helps cities lower their carbon footprint, and improve our environment for everyone.

by Pat Layton
Pat Layton is Professor of Forestry and Director, Wood Utilization + Design Institute at Clemson University and member of the SFI Board of Directors.

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