The Doomsday Clock is ticking, and every industry is looking towards innovative sustainable alternatives to continue production without harming the environment. Initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions became a focus of the building sector in their struggle to cut the waste, pollutants, and expenses resulting from construction. From architects to sustainability advocates, the building sector aims to shape a more psychologically, physically, and aesthetically healthy residential and commercial environment.
Looking at every aspect of the building process, from the raw material to the end product, the one material that checks every sustainability box is … wood. Some might be surprised to think of wood as environmentally sustainable or innovative. Still, we’ll look at every aspect of the material and how it can work as the solution to the most significant threats the real estate industry faces.
The Reinvention of Wood
While we all know that wood has been used since prehistoric times to build structures, disastrous fires lead the building sector on a search for alternatives. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 proved that wood wasn’t the safest and most resilient building material. With the discovery of concrete and steel, wood took the backseat of the construction industry for anything other than stick-frame constructions of single-family homes. In the meantime, our modern lifestyle continues to harm the environment.
But, similarly to other construction materials (clay, plastic, concrete), wood was reinvented and rediscovered due to a new, more intricate production method. The spotlight shines brighter on this historical building material due to the newly developed structural wood, also known as mass timber or massive timber.
Unlike the wood used in stick-frame constructions, massive timber isn’t just one piece of wood. One piece of massive timber results from several parts of crisscrossing wood stuck together. There are several products encompassed within the term massive timber. While the most familiar, widely used and launcher of architectural possibilities is cross-laminated timber (CLT), massive timber includes other products as well. There are glue-laminated beams (glulam), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), nail-laminated timber (NLT), and dowel-laminated timber (DLT).
To manufacture cross-laminated timber, lumber boards are trimmed and knil-dried before being glued on top of each other in crosswise layers, each piece’s grain going against the other’s. This results in large slabs reaching one foot thick, 18 feet in length, and 98 feet in width. Only transportation limitations restrict the size of these slabs as they can be manufactured to whatever size they are needed.
What leads to mass excitement in the industry is the performance results of this material. The slabs of wood we mentioned above don’t only match the performance of concrete and steel, but they also exceed it and can be used for the entire building – floor, wall, ceiling, everything. Furthermore, this material can be used for high-rise buildings because of its endurance, and this can be seen in the 18 stories of Mjøstårnet, Norway’s third tallest building. The US, however, wants to decrown Norway, and there is a proposal for an 80-story wooden tower in Chicago.
Massive Timber taking over the US
CLT was developed in Austria in the 1990s and became popular in Europe for residential construction. Still, there is a solid competition to win against in the US. Stick-frame building was never popular in Europe due to its flimsy nature, but it is used across the US because it is cheap and ubiquitous. However, when American architects realized that CLT was ideal for taller buildings and could work as a substitute for concrete and steel, its venture across the states gained momentum.
In 2015, the International Building Code (IBC) incorporated CLT and mass timber 18 stories constructions were accepted and will be formalized as soon as 2021. Washington and Oregon are pushing towards mass timber usage in construction, and Oregon incorporated CLT in 2018 as a statewide alternative method. A large amount of forests in the Pacific Northwest explains the push for wood as a building material. The housing crisis had devastating effects on the forest product industry in these areas, production declining by 17% from 2014 to 2016. Companies are aggressively supporting CLT as forests are overstocked, and the domestic demand is low. Through CLT, this industry sector could experience a rebirth, and other side-effects will be visible in regions struggling from economic blows.
While constructions are being built with CLT, projects are moving slowly due to the amount of testing, designing, and permits required. It’s not easy to find the material suitable for it or the people to work with it. The CLT industry is still young, not only in the US but efforts are made to normalize this alternative option.
Advantages of Massive Timber
With growing enthusiasm from both builders, architects, and environmentalists, resistance seems to dim down. We should note that the only opposition came from representatives of the concrete and steel industries. The following advantages will underline some of the reasons why massive timber is gaining popularity over concrete and steel.
Wood burns. Everyone knows that, and every American is terrified by the images coming from California. Across the country, wood is used in buildings like stick-frame constructions, plywood, and 2X4s. These building materials are highly flammable. However, fire can’t do as much or rapid damage to large, solid, compressed slabs of wood. If you want proof, try to ignite a log with a match and see how fast that catches fire.
In massive timber, you have several slabs of wood pressed together. If you bring a flame to it, the exterior slab will char as expected, but it self-extinguishes and protects the other layers. Massive timber will retain its structural integrity for several hours, even when exposed to intense fire. The US Forest Service, the International Code Council, and the Fire Protection Research Foundation report that CLT meets fire safety codes and even passed blast resistance tests.
Fun Fact: during these tests, the CLT resistance wasn’t an issue. The resistance of steel was an issue as steel is used for the joints in these constructions. Steel loses its structural integrity once it reaches yielding temperature, becoming unpredictable and untrustworthy.
Low Carbon Emissions
Around 28% of greenhouse gas emissions result from building operations energy usage, and another 11% come from construction and building materials. With higher percentages of green energy available on the market and a growing trend, the materials used in construction and construction itself will have a bigger impact on the environment from the building sector. This is the purpose for which massive timber is gaining attention. But let’s understand how massive timber impacts carbon emissions.
- Emissions of greenhouse gases occur during logging (carbon from the soil gets disturbed), waste is generated (rots and releases carbon), transportation (vehicles) – wood is considered carbon-neutral if it comes from sustainably managed forests, but more on this later.
- Carbon sequestration in timber used to build structures can be locked there for hundreds of years, considering that one cubic meter of CLT can bind around 1.1 tons of CO2.
- Manufacturing of cement and concrete results in 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the iron and steel industries release 5% more. For a better perspective, the manufacture of each ton of steel releases two tons of carbon dioxide. All these can be avoided when mass timber replaces them.
CLT buildings could reduce as much as 26.5% of the global warming potential if forests are managed sustainably, locally sourced, and disposal practices maintain a sustainable agenda.
CLT buildings are manufactured in factories, meaning that buildings are delivered on-site like a lego that needs to be put together. The CLT wall will already have the space for doors, windows, plumbing, and electricity available, but that area wasn’t cut out. There was nothing there in the first place, eliminating material waste through computer-guided fabrication. Wood is only placed where it is required.
Little labor is required in putting these prefabricated lego pieces together. They are delivered on-site, and within weeks, tall towers can pop up out of nowhere. Generally, massive timber structures are built 25% faster than concrete ones and need 90% less construction traffic. In the future, we could see kits of parts for CLT mid-rise apartments and office buildings spreading across the nation just like IKEA furniture.
When the earth shakes, concrete cracks result in demolitions and replacements that lead to higher CO2 emissions. CLT buildings proved to have increased endurance in earthquakes, and in case they get some damage, the damage can be fixed with much more ease and affordability. The same endurance makes it ideal for buildings with wide-open spaces and a lot of natural light as it can support its weight better than concrete or steel. The weight of massive timber makes it also ideal for areas where heavy concrete constructions aren’t suitable.
The natural beauty of wood allows it to be left visible. Massive timber can become nature’s fingerprint in our homes, giving us a sense of connectivity with nature. The soothing effect of wood impacts the inhabitants’ quality of life, providing excellent acoustics, soundproofing, insulation, and a great scent of wood. Natural light isn’t an issue with CLT buildings because the strength and durability of massive timber allow for large empty spaces in between the beams, playing with both open spaces and architectural innovations.
When we say side-effects, we do not mean negative side-effects. The following are just some ways in which a focus on massive timber as an alternative building material, similar to bamboo but even more sustainable as it grows anywhere, will impact other aspects of the industry.
We are all aware of what is happening in the West, where forests have become tinderboxes due to both climate change and poor forest management. The number of dead, weakened trees or closely clustered small trees acts like fuel, with every fire permanently scarring the land. These forests need rapid thinning, but funding is an everlasting problem. A market for massive timber would provide enough funding for proper forest management.
The Northwest and the Southeast US house the largest percentage of softwood forests. The communities living there have been struggling since the great depression and even more since the housing crash. Suppose the demand for softwood increases, closed mills could be reopened. In that case, these communities could be resurrected, and their interests could be aligned with the Green New Deal and check every sustainability box. If managed properly, wood grows, and it is considered a renewable resource, virtually unlimited.
While this does seem to answer the essential questions of every sustainability advocate, whether they are an architect, politician, businessman, or environmentalist, there are factors to be taken into account. The protection and proper management of forests are imperative for the battle against climate change as well as environmental planning for communities around the nation. Figuring out a new way to build our homes doesn’t help if we don’t preserve a livable world. Forest ecosystems help by decarbonizing our environment, providing a habitat for wildlife and recreation for us.
Sustainable forestry is necessary to provide a sustainable alternative that accommodates the growing and urbanizing 21st-century population, simply because steel and concrete are not viable or sustainable options. Massive timber can cut down costs and waste by providing an opportunity for mass-produced, low-cost buildings. However, without sustainable forestry, massive timber could result in the loss of mature forests and increased clearcutting. Unsustainable forestry is the only potential downfall, and it’s a downfall that will end all of us. Mass timber without sustainable forestry will be worse than continuous use of concrete and steel. Still, we must stop thinking of personal gain and invest in green energy and other options that will benefit us all.
Seeing wood in a new light, trendier, luxurious, and sexy once again led architects and environmentalists to come together for the benefit of the environment. But we can all benefit from this if only we learn to outthink the box and re-envision our lives. Imagining an environment in which we no longer pollute isn’t as impossible as it used to be. Technological developments and innovations are happening around the globe with Iceland’s Carbon Capturing Plant, Canada’s Direct Air Capture system, or the US’s Artificial Leaf. They all work to rid the environment of insurmountable amounts of carbon dioxide. Massive timber is just another soldier on that front, and we should make it fight as it naturally does while also growing a whole army to help him.
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