How Commercial Buildings Are Using Mass Timber

04/23/2024

As the construction industry works to bridge the need for sustainable practices, increased tech infrastructure, and functional design, we’re witnessing firsthand the evolution of building materials and techniques. One of the most exciting developments in recent years has been the rise of mass timber as a viable and versatile option for commercial and industrial spaces.

In today’s article, we’re going to dive into the history, development, and discussion of mass timber in commercial and industrial spaces.

What is Mass Timber?

Mass timber may seem like a modern innovation, but its roots stretch back centuries. Historically, timber has been a primary building material in many parts of the world, prized for its abundance, durability, and ease of construction. However, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that engineers began exploring ways to optimize wood’s structural capabilities through modern manufacturing techniques.

One notable milestone in the development of mass timber was the invention of glued laminated timber (glulam) in the early 20th century. Glulam beams, which are made by bonding together smaller pieces of lumber with structural adhesives, offered increased strength and versatility compared to solid wood beams. Another significant advancement came with the development of cross-laminated timber (CLT) in Europe in the 1990s. CLT panels consist of multiple layers of lumber stacked at right angles and glued together, creating a strong and stable building material suitable for walls, floors, and roofs.

In recent years, mass timber has experienced a renaissance, driven by advancements in engineering, sustainability concerns, and a growing interest in natural and renewable building materials. Today, mass timber is being used in a wide range of projects, from small residential buildings to large-scale commercial and industrial developments.

Specific Examples of Mass Timber Projects:
  • T3 Minneapolis: One of the most iconic examples of mass timber construction is T3 (Timber, Transit, Technology) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Completed in 2016, T3 is a seven-story office building constructed entirely from CLT and glulam. Its innovative design and use of mass timber garnered international attention and helped pave the way for similar projects.
  • Brock Commons Tallwood House: Located at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, Brock Commons Tallwood House stands as the world’s tallest mass timber building. Completed in 2017, this 18-story residential tower showcases the potential of mass timber for high-rise construction while also promoting sustainability and innovation.
  • Oregon Conservation Center: The Oregon Conservation Center, located in Portland, Oregon, is a LEED Platinum-certified office building constructed primarily from CLT and glulam. Completed in 2020, this project demonstrates how mass timber can be used to create sustainable and energy-efficient buildings that promote environmental stewardship.

How is it Used?

Mass timber’s versatility and strength make it suitable for a wide range of applications in commercial and industrial construction. From structural elements to interior finishes, mass timber can be used in various ways to create sustainable and visually striking spaces.

Structural Components

Walls: Mass timber panels, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), are commonly used for exterior and interior walls in commercial and industrial buildings. CLT panels provide structural support while also acting as insulation, reducing the need for additional materials.

Floors and Roofs: Mass timber is ideal for constructing floors and roofs in multi-story buildings. Glued laminated timber (glulam) beams and columns can support heavy loads, allowing for open and flexible floor plans. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels can span long distances, eliminating the need for traditional joists and rafters.

Exterior Cladding

Facade Systems: Mass timber can be used as an exterior cladding material, adding warmth and texture to the building’s facade. Vertical and horizontal timber panels create a modern and natural aesthetic while also providing weather protection and thermal insulation.

Sunshades and Louvers: Timber sunshades and louvers can be integrated into the building’s facade to control sunlight and glare, improving energy efficiency and occupant comfort.

Interior Finishes

Ceilings and Wall Panels: Mass timber can be left exposed on ceilings and walls to showcase its natural beauty and warmth. Tongue-and-groove CLT panels create a seamless and visually appealing surface, enhancing the architectural character of the space.

Staircases and Elevator Cores: Glulam beams and columns are often used to construct staircases and elevator cores, providing structural support and architectural interest. Timber treads and handrails add a tactile and organic element to the building’s interior.

Source: tallwoodinstitute.org

Recent Innovations

In recent years, the mass timber industry has seen significant advancements in technology and design. Engineers and architects are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with mass timber, exploring innovative techniques such as hybrid systems that combine mass timber with other materials like steel and concrete. These innovations have opened up new possibilities for creative and sustainable building design.

Hybrid Systems

One of the most significant recent innovations in mass timber construction is the development of hybrid systems that combine timber with other materials such as steel, concrete, or glass. These systems leverage the strengths of each material to optimize performance and efficiency while allowing for greater design flexibility. For example, hybrid timber-concrete systems utilize timber beams and columns with concrete slabs to create lightweight and sustainable floor structures capable of spanning long distances.

Prefabrication and Modular Construction

Advances in prefabrication and modular construction techniques have streamlined the mass timber manufacturing process, leading to faster construction times and improved cost-effectiveness. Prefabricated mass timber panels can be manufactured off-site in a controlled environment, reducing waste and minimizing on-site labor requirements. Modular construction methods allow for the assembly of entire building components, such as walls, floors, and roofs, off-site before transporting them to the construction site for installation.

Advanced Timber Technologies

Technological advancements in timber manufacturing and processing have led to the development of new products and techniques that push the boundaries of what’s possible with mass timber. For example, robotic fabrication systems can precisely cut and shape timber components with minimal waste, optimizing material usage and efficiency. Computer-aided design (CAD) and building information modeling (BIM) software enable architects and engineers to visualize and analyze complex timber structures before construction, ensuring accuracy and performance. Additionally, advancements in timber treatment and preservation techniques have improved the durability and fire resistance of mass timber, expanding its range of applications and increasing its lifespan.

Carbon Sequestration and Environmental Benefits

As concerns about climate change and sustainability continue to grow, there is increasing interest in the environmental benefits of mass timber construction. Wood is a renewable resource that has the unique ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. By using mass timber in construction, developers can reduce the carbon footprint of buildings and contribute to a more sustainable built environment. Innovations in life cycle assessment (LCA) methodologies and environmental certification programs, such as LEED and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, provide frameworks for measuring and verifying the environmental performance of mass timber buildings, further incentivizing their adoption.

Biophilic Design and Wellness

Another emerging trend in mass timber construction is the integration of biophilic design principles and wellness-focused features that enhance occupant health and well-being. Biophilic design seeks to reconnect people with nature by incorporating natural elements, such as wood, daylight, and greenery, into the built environment. Mass timber’s natural warmth, texture, and visual appeal create inviting and comfortable spaces that promote productivity, creativity, and overall satisfaction. Additionally, timber’s acoustic properties help to reduce noise levels and create a quieter and more peaceful indoor environment. Wellness-focused amenities, such as green roofs, indoor gardens, and natural ventilation systems, further enhance the health and comfort of building occupants, fostering a sense of connection to the natural world

Challenges to Consider

One of the primary challenges facing the adoption of mass timber in commercial and industrial construction is the shortage of skilled labor trained in timber construction techniques. Mass timber construction requires specialized knowledge and expertise, including timber framing, joinery, and installation. As demand for mass timber projects increases, there is a growing need for training programs and certification pathways to develop a skilled workforce capable of meeting industry demand. Additionally, collaboration between educational institutions, industry stakeholders, and professional organizations can help promote timber construction education and training opportunities.

Sourcing high-quality timber and ensuring a reliable supply chain can also be challenging, particularly for large-scale mass timber projects. Factors such as forest management practices, timber species availability, and transportation logistics can impact the availability and cost of timber materials. Moreover, the increasing global demand for wood products, coupled with potential supply chain disruptions due to factors like climate change and trade policies, may further exacerbate these challenges. Building strong relationships with timber suppliers and adopting sustainable sourcing practices can help mitigate supply chain risks and ensure the availability of quality timber materials.

Adhering to building codes and regulations is essential for ensuring the safety, durability, and compliance of mass timber structures. However, existing building codes may not always accommodate the unique characteristics of mass timber construction, leading to regulatory barriers and approval delays. In some cases, building officials may lack familiarity with mass timber building systems and require additional documentation or testing to verify compliance. Advocacy efforts to update building codes and standards to reflect advances in mass timber technology and research can help facilitate the widespread adoption of timber construction methods.

While mass timber offers many benefits, including sustainability, speed of construction, and aesthetic appeal, it can sometimes be more expensive upfront compared to traditional building materials such as concrete and steel. Factors such as material costs, labor expenses, and project complexity can influence the overall cost of mass timber construction. Additionally, market conditions, supply chain dynamics, and regulatory requirements may impact project budgets and financial feasibility. Conducting thorough cost-benefit analyses and exploring innovative financing options, such as incentives, grants, and tax credits, can help address cost considerations and make mass timber projects more economically viable.

Fire safety is a critical concern in mass timber construction, as wood is combustible and can pose fire risk if not properly addressed. While mass timber has inherent fire-resistant properties due to its charring behavior, building regulations typically require additional fire protection measures, such as sprinkler systems, fire-rated assemblies, and compartmentalization strategies. Addressing fire safety requirements and obtaining insurance coverage for mass timber projects may present challenges due to perceptions of risk and uncertainty among insurers. Engaging with fire protection experts, conducting fire safety assessments, and implementing proactive risk mitigation strategies can help alleviate concerns and ensure the safety and insurability of mass timber buildings.

Final Thoughts

Mass timber holds tremendous promise for the future of commercial and industrial construction. Its sustainability, versatility, and aesthetic appeal make it a compelling option for clients looking to build with both the environment and their bottom line in mind. While there are challenges to overcome, the potential benefits far outweigh the obstacles. Mass timber represents not just a material choice but a shift towards more sustainable and innovative building practices.

A qualified general contractor can be an excellent asset on these types of projects, as they are familiar with codes and regulations, labor costs, and supply lead times. For any questions regarding your next project, feel free to reach out to our teams here.