It is 2050, global emissions in the construction industry have decreased by 30%. Buildings are almost entirely carbon neutral with a substantial percentage sequestering emissions resulting in net positive offsets. The construction industry is seeing a boon in high paying, safe jobs. Populations throughout the world have access to affordable, equitable and healthy housing. These potential outcomes seem surreal but can be realized if we revolutionize the way we will build. The mechanism for this revolution; MASS ADOPTION OF MASS TIMBER.
As pressure mounts to lower carbon emissions and build more sustainably, designers and engineers are looking for innovation in sustainable construction methods, innovations which has increasing focus on high-rise mass timber construction. With the ability to achieve the similar scale as common construction methods, mass timber possesses benefits that outweigh the environmental and societal costs associated with traditional construction methods.
The economic benefits of mass timber, in certain circumstances, prevail over the cost effectiveness of traditional construction methods in high-rise applications. This cost savings is mostly achieved through prefabrication and short construction time. For instance, one study concluded that engineered wood products outperformed traditional construction methods in terms of a 61% faster completion time and 22% cost savings in a 40,000 sq ft performing arts center. With the shorter time of construction, buildings enter the market more quickly. If we consider housing using this method, an expedited surplus of affordable units would be more rapidly available, quelling the need for attainable options from low-income households. Furthermore, increasing adoption of mass timber would have a significant impact on labor in local economies. One study investigated the extent to which mass timber would increase employment in the regional market of Oregon. If mass timber were to gain 15% of the construction market share, Oregon would see an opening for 6144 manufacturing jobs. Considering further economic impacts through indirect and induced employment, an additional 17,000 jobs could be created. This would generate around $1 billion in labor income and $34 million in state income taxes.
The greatest impact from adoption of mass timber high-rise construction comes from it’s environmental benefits. Since the construction industry makes up 40% of carbon emissions in the world, wood construction can significantly mitigate the harmful effects of human induced climate change. Wood is the original high performance and the only naturally sourced construction material. It requires much less energy when manufactured in comparison to materials such as steel and concrete, the latter amounting to 8% of the worlds CO2 emissions. Along with the low embodied energy associated with wood products, wood sequesters carbon throughout its life-cycle. This would potentially result in a climate positive built environment, by definition removing more CO2 than is emitted in a buildings life. With respect to carbon removal potential, it is estimated that high-rise buildings provide carbon removal benefits equivalent to roughly 150–250 kilograms of CO2 per square meter of floor space. For context, that would mean that building a city with as much floor space as Manhattan would sequester something on the order of 25–40 million metric tons of CO2. Additionally, almost all engineered wood products are sourced from sustainably managed forests creating the only renewable building material.
The materiality of wood emits a soothing characteristic unmatched by other raw materials. The aesthetic qualities of visible structural wood and finishes have profound effects on the health and well-being of occupants. This includes improved air quality, acoustics, and physical health. More and more research, including focus on trauma informed design, suggest a positive psychology response in people through interaction with wood.
The future of high-rise timber construction looks bright with multiple projects realized internationally and increasing adoption in the United States. As more buildings are built in this method, I believe we could accomplish what once were believed as unattainable climate challenges.
Michael Greene/DLR Group
7 stories 220,000 sq ft
Completed in 2016 in 9.5 Weeks
“Fact Sheet: Mass Timber.” American University. Accessed November 27, 2022. https://www.american.edu/sis/centers/carbon-removal/fact-sheet-mass-timber.cfm.
“Design and Construction of Taller Wood Buildings.” Think Wood, September 15, 2020. https://www.thinkwood.com/continuing-education/design-and-construction-of-taller-wood-buildings.
Newcomer, Reed. “Seven Benefits of Panelized Mass Timber.” Engineers Surveyors Planners and Scientists Morrison-Maierle, May 12, 2022. https://m-m.net/seven-benefits-of-panelized-mass-timber/.