Top 2021 Trends in Timber Construction

CLT building in Boston

A new Think Wood survey (pdf) gives us a peek into what kinds of wood-related building projects we’ll see a lot more of this year. The industry group surveyed 775 U.S. architects, contractors, developers and industry experts to build a list of the top trends in timber construction, and how much they’ll likely continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While 38% of respondents expect to see some delays this year, 28% expect no impact at all, and another 28% say they think it’ll all depend on factors like vaccination and reopening schedules in various states. Interestingly, many said their projects have been altered to prioritize good ventilation and lots of space for occupants to remain apart from each other, a trend likely to continue at least a few years into the future. 

The report offers five major predictions about the future: more focus on climate change, greater use of mass timber, widespread adoption of prefab and modular construction techniques, higher interest in hybrid construction and higher demand for affordable housing.

Trend 1: Focus on Climate Change

Industry experts say they expect low-to-zero-carbon and green building to be the biggest trend in 2021, driven in large part by industry, government and individual companies’ energy and carbon reduction targets. The market for non-residential green buildings reached about $80 billion in 2020 despite the pandemic, and is expected to reach $103 billion by 2023. Wood products are considered the number one best way to meet these goals, since they require less energy to manufacture and store carbon throughout the useful life of the building or project.

Trend 2: More Mass Timber

Breakthroughs in mass timber technology have made super-tall wooden buildings possible, and this material will continue to rise in adoption and popularity this year. Many mass timber projects are underway in the U.S. right now, and 18% of survey respondents expected to work on at least one.

“Mass timber isn’t simply a green building fad, it’s a resurgence of one of the oldest building materials used by man. The desire to use wood in commercial buildings will increase not only because it’s the more sustainable choice, but because building occupants and tenants will prefer it.” — Andrew Tsay Jacobs, Director of Building Technology Lab, AIA, EIT | Perkins&Will

Trend 3: A Boost in Prefab & Modular

Prefabrication and modular construction cut costs, reduce waste, are much faster to build and rate higher for quality and safety performance than conventional construction. Survey respondents believe that as the building industry adopts tech like 3D modeling tools and CNC machines, these methods will become a lot more common. Wood, of course, remains a popular material for prefab and modular building systems.

“I am now focusing exclusively on prefabricated hybrid residential design and construction solutions that prioritize energy efficiency, low carbon footprints and occupant health and well-being.” — Timber Trends Survey Respondent

Trend 4: Hybrid Construction

We’ll see a lot more wood (especially in the form of mass timber) being integrated into projects that once would have relied primarily on materials like steel and concrete. This “hybrid construction” type of building incorporates several types of structural materials to enhance sustainability and help with budget control. 

Trend 5: An Abundance of Affordable Housing

Even before the pandemic, 30.2 percent of American households spent more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing. We need more affordable housing just about everywhere, and survey respondents believe many affordable multi-family developments are coming this year. Timber plays an important role in affordable housing by improving access to living spaces that are economical, comfortable and sustainable, Timber Trends notes, and adding stories to existing buildings is more feasible with timber because of its lighter weight. 

More Developers are Choosing Wood Over Other Construction Materials

Contemporary apartment building made of wood at Hamburg

A new report in The New York Times outlines how climate change is spurring developers to increasingly choose wood over common construction materials like steel and cement, especially with the rise of cross-laminated timber (CLT).

Laminated wood panels are ultra-strong, and can be used as a primary material for tall wooden buildings. The market for “mass timber” buildings is rapidly growing in the United States and around the world.

“Developers are turning to wood for its versatility and sustainability. And prominent companies like Google, Microsoft and Walmart have expressed support for a renewable resource some experts believe could challenge steel and cement as favored materials for construction.”

“‘We are making huge headway in the U.S. now,’ said Michael Green, a leading mass timber architect for Katerra who is based in Vancouver, Canada, and designed the Catalyst Building and several more in North America.”

“Wood has several advantages over other building materials, including the ability to help curb climate disruption, that are driving the interest, he said. Steel and cement generate significant shares of greenhouse gases during every phase of their production. By contrast, wood stores carbon, offsetting the emission of greenhouse gases. ‘The environmental aspects alone are attractive,’ Mr. Green said. ‘Cross-laminated timber panels are faster to assemble. There’s much less construction site waste.’”

Using wood instead of heavier steel and cement can also save labor costs and come with other benefits.

“Another significant promoter is Hines, a global real estate investment, development and management firm based in Houston. Four years ago, Hines opened T3, a seven-story, 221,000-square-foot, cross-laminated timber office building in Minneapolis also designed by Mr. Green. The wood structure cost $60 million, 5 to 10 percent more than one built with concrete and steel. But the ease and speed of lifting and fitting manufactured pieces into place saves money on labor, said Steve Luthman, a senior managing director at Hines.”

“In addition to the labor savings, tenants are attracted to wood surfaces in work spaces. Hines sold the building in 2018 for $392 a square foot, a record for a Minneapolis office building.”

Eastern White Pine has been found to be structurally sound for use in cross-laminated timber by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, opening the door for this sustainable species to join others currently grown, harvested and processed for use in large mass timber construction projects.

Image via IWBC

Game Changer: Engineered Wood Opens Doors in the Construction Market


Is engineered wood ‘the new concrete?’ As demand grows, some industry sources say mass timber is set to open new doors in construction for the lumber industry, offering lucrative opportunities at the intersection of timber and tech. Advances in the processes used to make cross-laminated timber and other engineered wood products have set up a boom for tall wooden buildings with similar if not better structural integrity than those made with steel and concrete, making the construction industry as a whole more environmentally friendly.

Made from industrially dried quick-growing wood – including pine – CLT is up to four times lighter than reinforced concrete. A building made with CLT instead of traditional concrete uses up to 70 percent less material and can cut construction times by a third, sending project profitability through the roof. Developers are definitely taking note.

In a recent issue of the property insurer GenRe’s ‘Property Matters’ publication, Property/Casualty Senior Consulting Underwriter Leo Ronken examines “what’s so good about wood,” going down a long list of the attributes that have made engineered wood increasingly popular with architects, legislators and construction pros.

“In the global trend toward the construction of buildings that meet ecological needs, wood has some clear advantages over traditional construction materials such as steel and concrete. With advances in engineered wood materials and components come possibilities to construct increasingly larger buildings – a trend being witnessed around the world.”

Real estate services firm JLL has also noted the trend and what it could mean moving forward, calling it a ‘game changer.’

“The emergence of successful mass timber projects across all sectors is a trend which looks set to continue and develop as the industry demands more innovation. As Lucas Epp, Head of Engineering at StructureCraft in North America, says mass timber projects require fewer construction workers on site, less waste and higher quality of work. ‘Mass timber office buildings are also now competing with steel and concrete on cost,’ he adds.”

The forest products industry has long depended on single family homes, but mass timber opens the possibility of entrance into new markets where wooden framing was previously seen as inappropriate. Buildings made with mass timber are able to meet strict building codes, including those measuring fire resistance.

Another benefit of increased demand for CLT is the fact that it can be made with smaller, second-growth timber, reducing the need for so many big, solid logs from older trees and fueling greater efficiency at mills.

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World’s Tallest Timber Tower Currently Under Construction in Vancouver

tallest timber tower 1

It looks as if Vancouver, B.C. could become home to the world’s tallest timber tower by summer 2017, assuming it ’s completed before several other planned projects in Europe. Designed by Acton Ostry Architects, the Brock Commons Student Residence at the University of British Columbia is set to be 53 meters (173.8 feet) tall, with housing for 404 students. This particular plan calls for a hybrid of mass wood and concrete; the two freestanding concrete cores are already built and the wood structure is currently going up around it.

tallest timber tower 2

tallest timber tower 3

17 stories of timber will be topped with a prefabricated steel beam and metal deck roof, with all vertical loads carried by the timber and lateral stability provided by the cores. Steel connectors transfer loads between the glulam columns and a grid of cross-laminated timber panels to meet the Canadian building code standards for earthquake-resistant design. Most of the materials in use are prefabricated, enabling the structure to go up at a rate of about one floor per week.

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Designed to meet LEED Gold certification, the sustainable structure aims to stand as a case study for the viability of tall wood structures, ultimately leading to changes in British Columbia’s building codes so even taller wooden skyscrapers can be built. The amount of wood used in the structure will trap an incredible 2,563 tons of carbon, the equivalent of taking 490 cars off the road for a year. That represents a whole lot of potential for environmentally friendly, affordable and easy-to-build wooden superstructures in our future.

Trend Watch: Wood is the Most Advanced Building Material

Cross Laminated Timber

There’s a lot of talk about the building materials of the future, as technology makes all sorts of hybrid and nano-materials (which can be made of wood, too) stronger, cheaper and more accessible than ever. But for all of those advancements, one of the world’s most ancient building materials remains at the top of the list: wood. Popular Science features an in-depth examination of why wood is the most advanced building material of them all – and how it’s going to transform city skylines around the globe.

The biggest step forward is the development of CLT, or cross-laminated timber. This isn’t some kind of plasticized or artificial wood product; it’s simply parallel strips of wood that are placed atop each other perpendicularly and then glued together to create enormous panels with steel-like strength.

CLT is cheaper, easier to assemble and more fire-resistant than steel and concrete. In an age of heightened environmental awareness, it’s also more desirable for the fact that wood is renewable and acts as a carbon sink. The strength of CLT beams make it possible to build wood structures taller than ever before, and many countries are changing their building codes as a result.

Much of the CLT that’s currently produced comes from sustainable forests, and a good percentage is made of beetle-damaged pine. Pine bark beetles are the single biggest threat to pine forests, but CLT ensures that the trees affected by this scourge aren’t lost. That makes it an ideal way to get a practical and lucrative use out of what might otherwise be considered a waste material.

Check out plans for large-scale wood skyscrapers and learn more about the top threats to Eastern White Pine and how these majestic, useful trees can be preserved and protected.

Image via: greenspec