DESIGNING FOR CHANGE:

THE TIMBER REVOLUTION

WHAT IS MASS TIMBER?

 

The primary utilization of wood in North American construction has historically been light wood framing.  Whether it was the introduction of the balloon frame in the 1830s, or the standardization of the platform frame a hundred or so years later, both systems essentially employed repetitive modular fiber elements nailed together to form larger planes and surfaces that ultimately define space and form envelopes around volume for human dwelling.  While both extremely prevalent and economical, these systems have been generally limited to single family homes and low-rise construction.  

 

For the last roughly 5 years, the AEC industry has seen increasing interest stateside for wood’s next large-scale integration into the built environment in the form of mass timber.  For anyone who has had an encounter with a mass timber enthusiast, such optimism may sound familiar: 

 

It makes for better environments to live and work in thanks to its biophilic properties!

 

The decarbonization of building materials is crucial for tackling climate change issues!

 

We believe in leveraging the scalability of mass timber to help solve the global housing crisis by building up instead of building out.

 

Eight weeks were saved in our construction schedule using CLT over traditional metal deck and concrete systems!

 

While not technically a new material (glue laminated wood has been in use since German native Otto Karl Freidrich Hetzer patented the timber technology in 1906, and CLT’s advances have been documented across Europe since the 1990’s), many in the United States have referred to the momentum surrounding the use of mass wood in construction as the “Timber Revolution.”  In fact, those were the same words I used in 2019 when presenting my Pellerin Fellowship findings after having come back from an inspiring research trip to Finland on the subject. Now, four years later, INFORM principal Michael Guthrie and I were two of more than three thousand attendees at the 2023 International Mass Timber Conference in Portland, Oregon this past week—a conference record.  WoodWorks reported to attendees that by the end of 2022, there were a total of 1,677 total mass timber projects built, started, or in design in the United States; compare that to 2019 where we were just barely pushing the 300 mark, and it’s a 459% increase. 

Map graphic courtesy of the WoodWorks Innovation Network

What makes this material so revolutionary? And why are so many developers, architects, engineers, and builders excited about mass timber?

 

WHY MASS TIMBER?

 

For starters, building codes are beginning to recognize mass timber as a safe alternative building material. At INFORM, we have worked with our local code officials and organizations around the state to lobby for an updated 2021 IBC edition which adopts code language that is more conducive to building with mass timber.  With the adoption of Type IVA, IVB, and IVC, building with mass timber will become more accessible and more practical.  The US Forest Service and US Embassy are also offering innovative grants to promote US-sourced fiber products and pursue further research on mass timber building performance.  The 2023 Research and Study Mission to Finland, in which INFORM will be represented on the US delegation, is just one of many initiatives available to developers, architects, and universities to continue this positive momentum surrounding mass timber.

 

At INFORM, we believe in the positive impacts of mass timber, and when used cohesively in a building and sourced responsibly, we feel that it is a product that closely aligns with our core values as an organization.  

We design to support expression and create identity.  Mass timber is unique in that it is a structural member that can be expressed as an interior finish condition without extensive additive processes.  For building owners looking to present a more naturally-inspired environment to tenants, data indicates that mass timber buildings return their investment with higher lease rates and lower occupant turnover.  For example, up to 10% of absences in employees are linked to architecture devoid of connection to nature1.  People generally want to stay in a building for more time if it is appealing and comfortable, and there have been numerous other studies showing mass timber’s positive effects on stress reduction, infection control, visual comfort, and indoor air quality.  Currently under construction, INFORM-led A.B. Ford Park Community Center was planned as a resiliency hub for the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, where feedback from the community was integrated into the building’s design.  In response to this feedback, A.B. Ford will be the first project in the City of Detroit to showcase a CLT roof deck, bringing resiliency and wellness aspects of mass timber to its end users.  Our hope is that through buildings like A.B. Ford, mass timber can be regarded as the standard of excellence for other spaces like it in the future.

CLT panels being installed for the A.B. Ford Park Community Center, Detroit

We design to strengthen communities and connect members within them.  We see the future of building with mass timber as providing a less-invasive construction option for urban communities as well as rural, biosensitive sites. With smaller construction footprints and reduced noise compared to alternative materials, mass timber is nimble enough to contribute to existing fabric with limited disruption to healthy connections.  The Grace Bible Church expansion project is an example of how mass timber was utilized to speed construction timelines beyond traditional methods. The use of CLT for the roof deck allowed the church body to occupy their space faster, as well as enjoy the biophilic qualities of natural Spruce-Pine-Fir finish.

Exposed CLT deck at Grace Bible Church, Ann Arbor, M

We design for inclusion. Quality, affordability, and availability of housing in America is paramount to an inclusive society.  We see mass timber as a catalyst towards those ends, and we also see the equitable sourcing of timber as a way to fairly sustain job growth and increase capital in the timber sector for vulnerable groups. 

 

When we design for tomorrow with mass timber, we are using a construction material that, unlike steel, concrete, and masonry, sequesters more carbon than it produces during its fabrication. For each cubic meter of lumber produced, the net carbon benefit is 1 ton on average2. Mass timber building products are the only true renewable material, returning growth to the earth through the power of the sun.  With wildfire events on the rise in recent years, our North American forests are in desperate need of management practices that thin and clear the forest floor of flammable density. Responsible harvesting is something that mass timber manufacturers are successfully bringing to the sustainability picture in the US, as well as making communities around forest land more fire-resilient.  The Ann Arbor District Library project was unique in that timber members were sourced locally by hand from the project site to be featured in the building.  This not only preserved the sequestered carbon in the existing Ash trees that were affected by the Emerald Ash Borer, but it removed flammable material from the forest and turned them into beautiful structural members.  The rest of the library included recycled wood content featured in the floors, walls, and ceilings.

 Ann Arbor District Library – Traverwood Branch

We believe in design as an agency to affect positive change. The US Green Building Council (USGBC) “considers about 5 percent of the industry to be innovators, 20 percent to be leaders, 70 percent to be followers of current codes, and 5 percent to be lawbreakers (who do not follow codes)3.”  INFORM wants to be on the edge of innovation and design leadership, and we see designing with mass timber as a key value add for our clients, our community, and our environment through built work.

Ruicci Residence, Farmington Hills, MI

SOURCES

  1. Terrapin Bright Green. “Economics of Biophilia.” Terrapin Bright Green, 2012, https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/report/economics-of-biophilia/.
  2. Michael Milota and Maureen E. Puettmann, “Life-Cycle Assessment for the Cradle-to-Gate Production of Softwood Lumber in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Regions,” Forest Products Journal 67, no. 5/6 (2017).
  3. Dave Atkins et. al, “2023 International Mass Timber Report,” Trifecta Collective LLC (2023).

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