What is mass timber, and how might it help Oregon’s timber industry?

What is mass timber, and how might it help Oregon’s timber industry?
What is mass timber, and how might it help Oregon’s timber industry?

Mass timber itself is a generic term for engineered wood that is being used in large scale construction, specifically multi-story buildings, but what is it exactly?

Most forms of mass timber consist of taking pieces of wood, layering them on top of one another, using some sort of adhesive to bind the pieces together, and pressing them until it forms a stronger, more durable piece of wood.

“It gives us the ability to take what is used to only be possible to do in concrete and steel, ie larger buildings, not single family homes but multi-family residences, institutional buildings, office buildings, commercial buildings, hotels,” said Iain Macdonald , the director of the Tallwood Institute, a collaborative effort between the Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon to advance the understanding, and application of mass timber. “All of those things can be done now using wood.”

These large scale constructions made out of wood are the end goal of many working with mass timber, as it presents some interesting options when it comes to sustainability, and general resiliency. Wood itself will actively stores carbon within it, as opposed to steel or concrete structures that can’t, meaning large, multi-story buildings constructed out of mass timber will help absorb more carbon in areas where these buildings are constructed. On top of that, mass timber pieces can be pre-built in factories, meaning that time dedicated to construction can be faster, and cheaper.

“Because these products can be prefabricated in a factory environment, they can go together really rapidly on a job site,” Macdonald said. “And that saves a developer money in terms of all the insurance, and all the site costs that you have to bear.”

So the next question that follows is what about the durability? Is it capable of surviving a housefire, or even a wildfire?

Macdonald gives the analogy of a camp fire. Light frame houses, think single family buildings, or one to two story commercial buildings, would behave similar to kindling where it’d burn quickly and keep the fire alive, while mass timber behaves more like firewood. The exterior will be burnt, but the overall structure will survive.

One way Macdonald anticipates mass timber helping the timber industry is through something called restorative forestry, where more mature trees are left to continue to grow, while smaller trees are harvested in order to clear wild fire fuel loads on forest floors.

“We want to do something with those trees. We want to bring them into the fiber supply chain [and] provide that material to the wood products industry,” Macdonald said. “And if we can pull that through the supply chain, we create jobs in the rural communities, help to sustain those communities that have saw mills, [and] might have mass timber production facilities.”

Earlier this year, the Northwest was designated as a mass timber tech hub, meaning it can compete for grants up to $50-75 million to grow the region into a globally competitive region in terms of mass timber construction. Macdonald and the Tallwood Design Institute have a 10 year vision where he hopes to see the Northwest become the pre-eminent region for mass timber production.

“It’s a lofty goal, but we have a lot of the parts in place,” Macdonald said. “About half of the mass timber production in the US happening in the Northwest right now. We’re the early adopters. The first buildings built with mass timber were in Oregon and Washington.”

Recently, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley co-signed a letter that pushes for mass timber use in future federal building construction, hoping to use the mass timber industry as a way to create jobs in Oregon and beyond.

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