Mass Timber High Rise Projects are Changing the Wood Construction Economy

May 9, 2019

Posted By Jeffrey Hatcher

Recently, the US Forest Service and the US Endowment for Forestry and Communities announced a Mass Timber University Grant Program. Timber and mass timber construction have become a focal point for USFS grant funding, which also recently announced awardees of their annual Wood Innovation Grant, the majority of which focus on technical improvements to current mass timber structures.  

18-story Brock Commons tower, Vancouver (Acton Ostry Architects/University of British Columbia)
The construction of high-rise buildings with wood can both remove carbon dioxide from the air as well as encourage reforestation and improved forest land management.  

“Increased use of mass timber in construction is a triple win: for our nation’s forests, our rural economies, and builders. Demand for sustainably-sourced wood helps provide a market incentive for forest retention, management and stewardship activities that reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire,” said Steve Marshall, Assistant Director of Cooperative Forestry, USFS.  

Increased use of mass timber in construction is a triple win: for our nation’s forests, our rural economies, and builders. Demand for sustainably-sourced wood helps provide a market incentive for forest retention, management and stewardship activities that reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire

With a rising wave of zoning reform, and growing funding sources for affordable housing construction, municipalities and developers are starting to look towards this construction material.  Mass timber is becoming more widely-accepted as a building approach, reflecting a growing awareness of its inherent structural, building and aesthetic benefits.  

  • Made from a sustainable and renewable resource 
  • Increased off-site construction 
  • Shortened construction duration 
  • Carbon storage in the wood 
  • Superior fire, seismic and acoustic ratings than traditional materials 
  • Lower carbon foot-print than concrete and steel 
  • Aesthetic appeal 
  • Customization and variety of formats 
  • Favorable strength to weight ratios 

The nascent industry is cheering recent changes to the 2021 version of the International Building Code that will allow mass timber construction for structures up to 18-stories high. As products like cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam), and dowel-laminated timber (DLT) become more available, designers, engineers, and builders are all finding new and innovative ways to incorporate mass timber into new buildings and structures. 

Mass timber production requires fewer workers allows for pre-fabrication in advance of job site installation, known as a ‘kit-of-parts assembly system.’ Therefore, it reduces overall construction time and partially avoids the problem of the shortage of skilled construction workers. Mass timber is often made-to-order, thus it also lends itself well to customization. This allows architects, designers and city planners to utilize this material to give more urban character, but also increases the dependency between engineer, builder, and architect.  

Recently, an historic International Code Council (ICC) decision to update the code allows mass timber construction of high-rise buildings. Successful mass timber buildings of up to 18 stories have already been approved by local officials in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Canada. In Japan, Sumitomo Forestry Co is building a 70-stories tall wooden tower in Tokyo, which will become both the tallest building in Japan as well as the tallest wooden skyscraper in the world, made of 90% wood. However, in the USA, permitting for mass-timber buildings is still a state-level issue. In the United States, at least 35 tall mass timber buildings, ranging from 7 to 24 stories, are pending approval in 21 different jurisdictions.  

Oregon allows timber buildings to rise higher than six stories without special consideration and their state-wide alternate method (SAM) allows for alternate building techniques to be used after an advisory council has approved it. The first of the high-rise buildings to be planned for wood building project is called Framework in Portland Oregon. In New Jersey, a mixed-use development project in Newark is set to be the largest timber office building in the country. 

On average, mass timber assemblies weigh between one-third and one-fifth as much as concrete structures, despite equivalent structural capacities. As a result, mass timber buildings are much lighter than concrete ones. This is especially valuable in urban environments, where underground rail yards, subway tunnels, and municipal utilities place limits on how heavy and tall buildings can be. Lighter mass timber buildings also perform better in seismic zones. Since the lighter buildings carry less inertia, the potential for catastrophic swaying is also decreased.  

Building companies are also able to find workers more readily available for installing mass timber panels, with more efficiency and safety, communities experience less noise and dislocation during construction, and reduce the need for ‘dimension lumber’ onsite, reducing the risk of fire.   

Builders continue to report strong demand for new housing, fueled by steady job and income growth along with rising household formations," said NAHB Chairman Randy Noel, a homebuilder from LaPlace, La. "However, they are increasingly focused on growing affordability concerns, stemming from rising construction costs, shortages of skilled labor and a dearth of buildable lots." a chronic shortage of homes, which is keeping house prices elevated.  

Significant investment into the production of cross laminated timber (CLT) panels and the supply chain is continuing to expand, leading to lower costs and product diversification. With tariffs on foreign-grown softwood and imported steel and aluminum, it’s possible there could be further financial incentives to build structures made from locally-grown timber, as well.


Indufor is a global leader in Natural Resources Management, Investment Advisory, and Strategic Industrial Development consulting. We support our customers to compete and sustainably grow in international markets. Indufor has offices in Finland, New Zealand, Australia and the United States, and representation in China. We have close to 40 years of experience in more than 100 countries. Our services support our clients to make the world more sustainable and greener.

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Jeffrey Hatcher

Managing Director of Indufor North America

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