Build It With Wood, Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge

Mass Timber Goes Primetime

Jan. 13, 2022
New England Forestry Foundation

Writing by NEFF Forest Policy Fellow Connor Rockett
Top photo: A contemporary cross-laminated timber house under construction 

With a nightly audience of more than a million viewers, the PBS Newshour brought mass timber construction into the spotlight in a recent segment about the Ascent Tower in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The 25-story apartment building will be the world’s tallest mass timber structure when it is completed. Watch the 10-minute Newshour segment below or by clicking here for an excellent profile of the building and the team behind it, and then keep reading for additional perspective on the opportunity mass timber creates for affordable housing, how we can build more sustainably with mass timber while maintaining the health of forests, and the material’s ease of construction.

Increasing Production While Keeping Forests Healthy

The segment raises the question of how to scale up mass timber construction and a related increase in demand for wood while maintaining and improving the health of our forests.

In the U.S., the amount of timber available and our ability to support a transition to mass timber is not in question. We have the capacity to produce more, as confirmed by national-level data from the U.S. Forest Service, which tell us that forests are growing nearly twice the volume of wood as is harvested on an annual basis, even after accounting for tree mortality. A report from the recent Mass Timber Regional Dialogue specifically addressed this question for New England, noting: “A robust [mass timber] supply would result in little additional harvest volume. We estimate that fiber supply to a [mass timber] facility represents less than 2% of net [forest] growth.”

A more pressing concern is the health of our forests: their capacity to support wildlife and withstand new threats unleashed by climate change from pests, diseases, and extreme weather. Moreover, we need forests’ carbon sequestration capacity and climate-smart forest products to overcome the climate challenge. By substituting for highly carbon-polluting materials like steel, concrete and plastic, mass timber and other wood products can provide emissions reductions while still meeting society’s need for new construction and goods.

NEFF has developed Exemplary Forestry standards to address these concerns. The standards provide regionally specific management practices for northern and southern New England to achieve the three co-equal goals of improved wildlife habitat, in-forest carbon storage, and timber production. NEFF’s modelling shows that by practicing Exemplary Forestry, we can increase the productivity of our forests and grow more wood for mass timber and other products, while improving wildlife habitat and carbon storage. Follow these links to read more about the standards for the Acadian Forest of northern New England and the Central and Transition Hardwoods of southern New England.

We have a critical window of time between now and 2050 to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. Practicing Exemplary Forestry across the managed landscape will enable us to achieve our goals for forest health, biodiversity, and climate mitigation, all while shifting to mass timber construction.

Who Can Afford Mass Timber?

While the PBS segment focused on the Ascent Tower, mass timber is highly suitable for a wide variety of buildings, from affordable housing to office buildings to community centers. As mentioned in the segment, mass timber’s low weight and speed of construction relative to other materials can translate into cost savings for any project. As WoodWorks explains, with an integrated design process involving all team members in decision-making, it is becoming common for mass timber projects to be cost-competitive or less expensive compared to other building systems for the same design. As local manufacturing capacity increases, we can also expect to see shipping costs decrease.

With support from the U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovations Grant program, a number of affordable housing projects using mass timber are now underway across the U.S. These projects are leading the way in demonstrating mass timber as a solution for housing and climate mitigation goals. For more information about existing mass timber buildings, the WoodWorks Innovation Network provides an interactive map that allows users to explore the details and features of projects across the country—demonstrating the full spectrum of applications.

A More Efficient Process

As a final point of clarification, the approval process for the Ascent Tower was lengthy, but recent building code updates are greatly reducing the time it takes to begin building with mass timber. The state of Wisconsin has not yet adopted codes that facilitate tall mass timber construction, so the design team working on the Ascent project needed to seek out specialized permits to begin construction. The 2021 International Building Code includes provisions to build with mass timber up to 18 stories, removing the need to seek out variances. A handful of states have already adopted the new provisions and many others are in the process of updating their codes—clearing the way for more projects and greatly reducing the barriers for building teams to get started.

Mass timber is attracting more and more public attention thanks to the reporting from PBS and other outlets. This coverage not only stimulates interest in the material as a solution for climate-smart and affordable construction, but it also brings out questions that help us to reflect on how best to deploy this new technology. Readers can join the Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge community to stay connected with New England Forestry Foundation as we answer these questions and take action to link New England’s forests with new mass timber construction in our growing cities for climate and housing solutions.