Mass timber: what is it and what is its potential in wood-based construction?

A deeper look at mass timber as a building material, sustainability potential and growth expectations

Mass timber, formed by joining together layers of wood to create large structural elements for construction, is a building material that has been gaining traction over the last decade. Originating in Europe, this mode of construction has grown in popularity across North America. Favored for their nature as wood products, they are often regarded as an environmentally friendly substitute for other materials with heavier carbon footprints such as steel and cement.

There are many mass timber constructions being planned, or in the building phase, in North America. Examples include a new Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is estimated to utilize approximately 1.7 million cubic feet of lumber. In addition, mass timber is being used in updates of existing structures, such as airports in Kelowna, British Columbia and Portland, Oregon.

As the advantages of mass timber construction reaches more builders and architects through training and education, it is becoming more popular. Random Lengths reported in October that a $41.4 million federal grant is expected to drive mass timber research in Oregon in the next few years as a part of the US EDA’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge. A total of 22 projects had been awarded funding under the Oregon mass timber coalition.

The question, for those active in the wood products trade, is whether this ‘mass timber movement’ has the potential to make waves in the industry.

We spoke to Tyler Freres, vice president of sales at Freres Engineered Wood, to delve deeper into the world of mass timber construction, how it could be a sustainable building solution and where he believes the growth opportunities could be in the future.

Watch the interview or read the summary below.

What are mass timber buildings and why the popularity now?

Mass timber is a way to pre-fabricate large format wood panels into discrete building elements, allowing us to create every structural wood element to build a multi-story building. These elements arrive at the building site and be installed almost immediately onto the structure.

Mass timber building is a real thing with traction on the market. Our markets have doubled every year since we put in the facilities and we have seen increased sales realization, revenue and volume. This is an achievement, considering that all this has been largely under an environment in which there has not been a whole lot of incentive for people to put up a mass timber building.

Under the current environment, where there is more federal investment and push into the field of net zero carbon structures, mass timber buildings really stand ahead of any other building material.

Could mass timber buildings be the answer to sustainable construction?

Mass timber construction could definitely be the answer towards low-carbon construction. The numbers are known and calculable on a cubic foot basis, so you can tell how much carbon each completed structure has sequestered from not only the initial construction, but also through its lifetime. There is also real potential for calculable carbon markets to sequester carbon in the structures and avoid the inherent risk in having carbon sequestered in a forest.

Do we see growth potential in mass timber constructions?

There are plenty of growth opportunities for mass timber construction, primarily because we are just at the beginning of the journey. The 2021 International Building Code (IBC) approved the use of mass timber for Type VI constructions, which opens up more possibilities for bigger wood-based constructions and applications.

It typically takes time for people to figure out how to use new building materials, so the fact that demand is strong, even at the start of a relatively new building material and marketplace, leads me to believe there will be an abundance of opportunity for mass timber in the future.

In addition, the industry currently looking to explore the potential of mass timber beyond just multi-story constructions. Bridges, roads and highway sound barriers, are just some of the things with potential to use large format panels that is being tapped into right now.

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