Why Our Sudden Appetite for Mass Timber is Helping Construction

23 May 2023AEC, Construction, SustainabilityCarbon, carbon footprint, labor, mass timber, renewable resource, sustainable design



On a continent that is 50% forested, as North America is, an appetite for mass timber construction not only makes sense, it’s fortuitous. As opposed to steel and concrete, timber is a renewable resource, making it a rising star in the sustainability movement. As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen through respiration. Estimates are that each mature tree can absorb about 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

barnraising with men in blue shirts and straw hats building a large barn using timber and red corrugated metal panels.
Timber construction image: Shutterstock (mass timber)

As described on the website madehow.com, in the US, most trees designated for construction lumber are grown in managed “working” forests owned by lumber companies or leased from government agencies. After trees have reached the optimal size for their intended use, they are felled, transported to a mill and cut into various sizes and grades of lumber. The areas where the trees were removed are replanted with seedlings to establish the next timber crop.

Download the Graitec Group eBook “Sustainable Impact of Lean Construction,” and learn how construction companies make economic sense out of sustainability.

You can find a list of the seven oldest wooden buildings in the world on Oldest.org. Those buildings, some of them thousands of years old, can be found in Chile, Norway, Faroe Islands, England, China, Japan, and the US (Massachusetts). Over the centuries, building materials shifted from natural materials like wood and stone to synthetics. Now attitudes are shifting back somewhat.

A January 2023 ConstructionDive article highlighted the growing trend toward using mass timber as a construction material in new buildings. NaturallyWood.com lists the variety of timber products as:

  • glue-laminated
  • cross-laminated
  • dowel-laminated
  • nail-laminated
  • laminated strand lumber
  • laminated veneer lumber
  • parallel strand lumber

Whether owners’ projects are mostly timber, or a hybrid combination of timber plus concrete or timber plus steel because of seismic restrictions, many are looking at timber as a way to reduce carbon footprint.

For a fascinating, valuable and visually interactive look at forest carbon data, visit forestcarbondataviz.org. The website states, “…working forests remain the earth’s most powerful clean air technology at scale.”

nearly leafless tree at sunset with dark blue sky, orange and peach colored clouds
Tree at sunset, Colorado; image: Carol S. Dunn

Mass timber is considered “carbon negative,” as opposed to steel and concrete. In the article, “Huge appetite for mass timber fuels new Webcor unit,” ConstructionDive reported the backlog for mass timber supplies is up to two years as more and more companies consider it a way to work toward their sustainability targets.

The benefits owners are seeing are not simply around sustainability. Mass timber projects require less onsite labor – estimates are up to 25%. More components can be manufactured offsite and installed on the project according to schedule.

Helping to spur the use of mass timber in construction forward are code updates at all levels of government. The newly adopted 2021 International Building Code allows buildings that are constructed using cross-laminated timber to be as tall as 18 stories.

As reported in the news, big companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Google, as well as larger universities like Princeton and Harvard, are choosing mass timber for construction on their new projects for sustainability reasons.

Indeed, the appetite for mass timber construction not only makes sense, it shows no signs of subsiding any time soon.

Learn more about how sustainable building policy is evolving in this April 2023 GRAITEC blog.


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