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The Conversation Around Mass Timber

NAIOP’s CRE.Converge conference, scheduled for Oct. 18-20 in Seattle, will span a variety of product types. Among the educational sessions on the agenda will be one covering a construction technique that similarly spans product types: mass timber.

In advance of this conversation, Connect CRE spoke with Robert Gerard, a Senior Discipline Engineer within Coffman Engineer’s Fire Protection Engineering team, to set the stage for attendees.

Q: In the past year or two, we’ve been hearing more often about mass timber projects. What are some of the factors driving this trend?

A: Having been involved in mass timber the last 15 years or so, I’ve been fortunate to work on mass timber buildings all over the world and am excited by the momentum finally arriving here to the US. Some of the biggest drivers have been around increases in Engineered Wood Products (EWP’s) and Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), significantly increasing the design capabilities for mass timber buildings.

Probably the biggest item that helped to accelerate mass timber was the adoption of the prescriptive building code here in the US to enable mass timber design. It opened up so many compliance pathways to actually design and construct these buildings, beyond the one-off performance-based designs we had previously been limited to.

That said, there are a number of additional factors at play that had to fall into place. Factories and production were probably the biggest ones, given cost is a major consideration. With the economies of scale and increase in the number of players, the industry has really helped to drive efficiency and make these buildings more competitive with concrete and steel.

On top of that, there is still a learning curve. We as design professionals might have been working in mass timber awhile now, but construction is finally on board and the best learning truly is hands-on experience. With the domestic acceleration of mass timber buildings over the last few years, contractors seem to feel more comfortable with the material and we’re starting to see this efficiency come to fruition.

Q: So the codes in some of the other parts of the world, such as New Zealand or Australia, were ahead of what we have been seeing in the United States up until recently?

A: Yes, over the past decade, mass timber has steadily been adopted into numerous international building codes and the US is finally catching up, with the adoption of mass timber into the prescriptive code in the 2021 International Building Code (IBC).

One of the best international examples is probably Canada, who is roughly 5 or so years ahead of us in terms of mass timber buildings. When we look at their market, we saw the adoption of mass timber into the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC) lead to a substantial number of mass timber buildings erected throughout many of their most populous cities in the years to come.

Here in the US, we’ve seen a similar increase in mass timber buildings following formal adoption, with the best example being the Pacific Northwest with the trend continuing across the country.

Q: As a construction material, what are some of the advantages mass timber can offer to both developers and construction firms?

A: Probably the most obvious advantage is the aesthetic, which is a differentiator within the market compared to steel and concrete buildings. When mass timber first hit the radar, it was primarily driven by developers and architects trying to utilize this very pleasing material that also features sustainability benefits.

While the aesthetic initially caught people’s attention, some of the real advantages are evident in the technical engineering and fabrication side of mass timber design and construction. Engineered Wood Products and Cross Laminated Timber enable modern day practitioners to maximize flexibility in design, drive efficiency in construction and ultimately reduce cost, which of course developers are keen on.

On the design side, we can capitalize on higher-performing materials to enable larger and taller mass timber buildings. An increase in prefabrication and modular design can improve efficiency and reduce time and cost, and we’re finally getting to the point that the numbers are starting to substantiate what we can do on paper in real life: to design and construct mass timber buildings that are practical and economical and people actually want to live in.

Q: We’ve been seeing mass timber primarily in apartment buildings and to some extent also in office. Is mass timber something which could translate into larger-scale applications like a warehouse or are there limitations?

A: Technically speaking, mass timber is feasible for any structure, including warehouses, bridges, schools and a large variety of building types. It might not be the best material for all applications, and there may be specific risks and hazards based on size and use, but it’s certainly capable and fortunately prescriptively allowed, in many modern building codes.

While the one-off mass timber aircraft hangar is always exciting to work on, we predominantly see mass timber in the residential and commercial area, with the greatest market share around podium construction in the six- to 10-story range.

Q: A two-part final question. Do you anticipate that in the U.S., mass timber is going to become widely used in the years to come? And secondly, are there lessons that U.S. construction firms and developers can take from overseas?

A: It appears that way, yeah. Mass timber is certainly increasing in popularity domestically and abroad. We’re seeing an increase in market share every year. I’d imagine that trend is going to continue, especially as the financial factors fall into place.

From the construction and feasibility side of things, mass timber seems to be competing with concrete and steel. It’s hard to say if it’s ever going to be as competitive in terms of the overall market share, but there’s certainly a place for it.

Additionally, we as designers are continually trying to innovate around structural systems and materials, while keeping an eye on sustainability, so there’s certainly a strong conversation around mass timber from that perspective. Perhaps as our societal values around sustainability evolve and costs being more efficient, we may see mass timber use increase as well.

As to the second question, there’s certainly lessons to be learned. On the design side, we’ve really benefited here in the States from all the research, testing and construction internationally. This has helped to accelerate adoption and growth, and most of all demonstrate the feasibility and ultimately safety of mass timber buildings. That trend is likely to continue.

Click here to register for NAIOP CRE.Converge 2023.


Inside The Story

Coffman Engineers' Gerard

About Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny serves as Senior Content Director for Connect Commercial Real Estate, a role to which he brings 13-plus years’ experience covering the commercial real estate industry and 30-plus years in business-to-business journalism. In this capacity, he oversees daily operations while also reporting on both local/regional markets and national trends, covering individual transactions across all property types, as well as delving into broader subject matter. He produces 15-20 daily news stories per day and works with the Connect team and clients to develop longer-form content, ranging from Q&As to thought-leadership pieces. Prior to joining Connect, Paul was Managing Editor for both Real Estate Forum and at American Lawyer Media, where he oversaw operations at both publications while also producing daily news and feature-length articles. His tenure in B2B publishing stretches back into the print era, and he has served as Editor in Chief on four national trade publications. Since 1999, Paul has volunteered as the newsletter editor of passenger rail advocacy groups (one national, one local).

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