When Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., announced that it would build an entire neighborhood out of mass timber in Toronto, it lent credence to an idea that would have seemed outlandish a decade ago: the sustainable buildings of the future might just be made out of wood.
Timber buildings are sprouting up the world over. There are now nearly 600 built or planned wooden commercial buildings in the contiguous U.S., according to The Wood Products Council. New York City will soon have its first two timber buildings in nearly a century, with a pair of mid rise developments in South Williamsburg. Swatch Group’s new headquarters in Switzerland is made of local timber. Developers in Japan and Australia have embraced the building material.
“Mass timber is being considered for a growing range of commercial real estate projects,” says Peter Feigenbaum, a Senior Project Architect at GF55 Architects.
While greater sustainability and lower costs have helped usher in this wooden construction boom, policy initiatives are also playing a big role. For instance, height restrictions on timber buildings were recently loosened in British Columbia and Oregon. Canada – where a proposed project could become world’s tallest wooden skyscraper – is providing incentives through the Green Construction Through Wood program.
“It’s aesthetically attractive as well as more sustainable, so it’s getting a lot of attention from both developers and governments,” says Feigenbaum.
Driving the hype: safer, and in some cases cheaper, materials
Inviting aesthetics and occupant wellbeing are a major feature of mass timber construction.
“Developers are starting to realize that wood provides an inviting workplace environment that people want to go to every day,” says Les Medd, Senior Vice President of Project & Development Services at JLL. “And that adds to their wellbeing, their productivity, and the overall success of the office space itself.”
“But it’s not just about doing good while looking good. The materials used to construct these buildings – engineered woods like cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glue-laminated timber (glulam) – provide the strength of structural steel at a fraction of the weight,” says Medd.
They’re also safer.
“Despite the commonly held concern about combustion of wood, mass timber members actually outperform steel under fire conditions,” he says.