Mass Timber

Eco-Friendly Wood Building Design

I challenge you to name a city that isn’t experiencing growth right now.  The construction industry is booming, and several billion sq.ft. of new structures will be built in the next three decades.  This is great news for the design industry, but not necessarily for the environment.  New infrastructure means carbon emissions, whether it be from the production of construction materials or the transportation of resources to jobsites.  But, what if there was a product that could offset the environmental effect of new construction?  Friends, meet mass timber.

         Mass timber is a broad term that encompasses many different wood design options.  Essentially, it is used to describe timber products that combine laminations of multiple layers to achieve a greater level of strength than traditional lumber.  Mass timber includes glue-laminated timber (glulam), cross-laminated timber, nail-laminated timber, and more.  Mass timber uses smaller trees, which can be regrown in a few decades, rather than larger ones that can take centuries to propagate.

         During photosynthesis, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and release it back into the atmosphere in the form of oxygen.  The trapped carbon stays inside trees, and even remains locked inside wood products after the tree is harvested for lumber.  A recent study entitled Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation With Wood and Forests from the Journal of Sustainable Forestry stated that using wood as a building-material substitute could save up to 31% of global carbon dioxide emissions and up to 19% of global fossil fuel consumption by using 34% to 100% percent of the world’s sustainable wood growth.  Remember, wood is a renewable resource, and reforestation has a natural, low-impact effect on the planet.  And, since trees can be grown across the United States, carbon emissions associated with importing resources is eliminated.  Wood is also highly recyclable, with the ability to be disassembled, repurposed, and reassembled over and over before finally being returned to the environment in some natural form.

         No, it’s not a perfect product, for there are still some environmental concerns.  Cutting down trees takes away Earth’s natural lungs, and reforestation is a time-consuming process.  Yet, as with any other industry, innovation abounds in the forest propagation world.  Experts agree that a strong market for mass timber will create a flurry of reforestation efforts in order to keep up with demand.  Further, in a similar way to biophilia, research supports that being around natural wood does wonders for the human experience, both physically and mentally.

         Various global groups, including governmental, advocacy, and commercial, are excited about the future of mass timber.  High-profile projects, such as Carbon12, a mixed-use luxury building in Portland, Oregon, are shining a light on the elegance, efficiency, and eco-friendliness of mass timber.  The iconic Pier 70 in San Francisco, California, is about to be home to the largest mass timber office building in the United States.  The 85’-tall, 310,000 sq.ft. office building will feature cross-laminated timber floor slabs, glulam columns and beams, and other innovative design elements.

         As is often the case, the United States lags behind Europe in embracing mass timber in the construction industry.  But, designers are savvy and know a good product when they see it.  I have a feeling in the near future we’ll see less concrete and steel, and more functionally beautiful mass timber.

editor & publisher

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