Is Mass Timber Finally Heading Toward Critical Mass?
By Elizabeth Lenhard
There’s no disputing the glam factor of tall buildings constructed with mass timber. Georgians who do a quick internet search for Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, or the T3 West Midtown, will find press coverage of the stunning, wood-forward buildings to be both rhapsodic and profuse. The same goes for a cross-laminated timber (CLT) project that isn’t even finished yet: the 500,000-square-foot expansion of Ponce City Market.But members of the forestry community who’ve followed the potential of mass timber — from cross-laminated to dowel- or nail-laminated, from Glulam to laminated veneer lumber — might be forgiven for wondering, is that all there is?
Thanks to a number of exciting developments in the mass timber construction market, the answer is a resounding no. In fact, national growth is already happening exponentially, according to Bill Parsons, vice president of operations at WoodWorks, a non-profit that provides free project support and education to designers, engineers and builders who want to work with wood.
“In 2015, WoodWorks provided support on a handful of projects where the team had an interest in mass timber,” Parsons reports. “Now, there are more than 1,200 mass timber projects in design, under construction or built across the U.S.”
The year 2015 was, of course, when CLT was added to the International Building Code (IBC), opening the door for U.S. mass timber construction on a broader scale. (An Austrian invention, CLT construction has been growing in Europe since the late 1990s.) Subsequent IBC updates progressively increased the number of stories allowed to be built with mass timber. That number has now reached 18 stories.
In a significant move for Georgia builders and wood producers, in 2020 the Georgia Legislature passed a bill (since signed into law) allowing up to 18 mass timber stories to be built here as well. To seal the deal, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs voted in November 2021 to amend the latest IBC with tall mass timber provisions.
Parsons translates all these regulatory machinations simply: “Design and construction teams are no longer limited to six stories of wood and they don’t need special approval to go higher. It makes it easier to move these innovative projects from concept to completion.”
REGULATORY CHANGES SPUR DEVELOPMENT For developers, architects and builders who want to create tall buildings with mass timber, such smoothing of the bureaucratic works is a huge motivator.
“The ball is rolling faster now,” confirms Bryan Harder, a Savannah-based architect and project manager with LS3P Associates. “And it’s going to pick up speed — like rolling a bowling ball down a hill — once one can walk to a site and experience it.”
Harder is helping to make this happen in Savannah with his current project for Flank, Inc. — a multi-family residential building at 111 Ann Street at the edge of the historic district. Harder reports that ground has already broken, vertical construction should begin this February and the project will be completed in the spring. It’s the first mass timber building for both Savannah and for his firm, and Harder says the learning curve for all involved has been steep but exhilarating.
“It’s very exciting to get in on the ground level of this movement,” he says. “In Savannah, we have 100-year-old buildings that are essentially made of heavy timber. So, we’re coming full circle, seeing a modernized version of that.” For consumers, Parsons says the pandemic has been another catalyst for increased interest in mass timber. After a quarantine experience in which people spent more time in nature, worked in their homes and became more aware of climate change, many are loath to return to a steel-and-concrete office with a drop ceiling.
“The sustainable movement has gotten stronger,” he says. “People want to go back to a healthier environment, what they feel good in.”
Harder agrees: “The pandemic has definitely shifted attention to more outdoor space in public and apartment buildings, more public and private patios — where people can be outside and be safe.”
But Harder says this connection to nature has also given workers and dwellers an increasing urge to bring the outside in.
“Biophilic design,” he explains, “makes people more connected with the outside. I think that’s important, especially now, where folks have been trapped indoors. Building with timber is a great option to bridge that disconnect.”
Indeed, 111 Ann Street’s design and aesthetics celebrate wood every chance they get. In addition to glulam posts and beams, Harder shares, the apartments’ floors, roofs and all sheer vertical components will be composed of CLT.
EARLY ADOPTERS LEARN AS THEY GO Harder admits that the path to this build was an extreme challenge. Being an early mass timber adopter means learning as you go, a much earlier commitment on the part of the developer and even more intense coordination between all team members than usual since there’s no margin for error when it comes to assembling giant, prefabricated panels of CLT.
For this project, the CLT was shipped from Austria. With U.S.-based CLT manufacturers still few and far between, going overseas was the best option.
“In time, it’ll be easier,” Harder says with assurance. “This is a monumental task, going head first into a new construction type. It’s a big deal and some folks want to see others get their feet wet first. I think as people see more timber buildings that are alive, as they become more familiar with it, everyone will be more comfortable with that. They’re seeing, this can be done and here’s the story behind it.”
In other words, the more 111 Ann Streets that begin to emerge, the more opportunities there will be for builders and designers to learn from tangible examples and for investors to see their success and buy in. Then more U.S.- based mass timber plants will begin cropping up to meet demand.
Parsons notes that much attention is given to flashy mass timber buildings in large cities and virtually every corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. But WoodWorks, which worked with LS3P Associates on its Savannah building, is seeing significant commitment to humbler mass timber projects in other small cities and suburbs. Once again, the pandemic had a hand in this development by inspiring thousands of remote workers to migrate from big, expensive cities.
“Smaller cities are becoming more dense and they’re looking to wood,” he says. “As one example, WoodWorks just placed a regional director in the Kansas City area, where we’re seeing some midrise buildings starting.”
It’s that bowling-ball-rolling-down-the-hill effect. That metaphor fits another phenomenon — climate change. One reason mass timber came onto the scene in the first place is because it’s renewable and carbon storing. It’s safer in a fire than concrete and steel and, once it’s more firmly entrenched, mass timber will make for a more efficient, labor-saving build. The need for all these green elements in construction is more urgent than ever. And the more mass timber grows, the better business sense it’ll make, says Parsons.
“Mass timber is a triple whammy,” he says. “You’re going to make the forest better; you’re going to store carbon and then you’re going to have a beautiful building that’s saving you money. So, that’s why there’s so much tailwind on accelerating this market right now.” ■ Elizabeth Lenhard, a freelance features journalist, frequently writes about Southern food and culture. She lives and works in Decatur, Georgia.
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