WHERE MASS TIMBER COMES TOGETHER
At the International Mass Timber Conference in Portland last week, there was ample evidence that mass timber (glulam beams, cross laminated timber panels, etc.) is growing to live up to the hype.
Mass timber has been hailed as a silver bullet for Oregon's economy, with its ability to stimulate the rural (forestry) and urban (design and engineering) at once.
The outlook in general is good. Bill Parsons, vice president of operations at WoodWorks, the Wood Products Council, said there are more than 220 CLT projects being built in North America at the moment, compared to just 20 in 2014. However, it's just a twig in the forest compared to the rest of the lumber industry. He said it only takes eight hours of growth to replace all the mass timber used in North America in 2018. Mass timber accounts for only 5 percent of the lumber production in North America.
The value of an international conference is the perspective it provides.
Europe is way ahead, but in North America, Canada is by far the leader in mass timber. On a map of where the factories are that make mass timber, there were six in Canada and four in the United States. The biggest dot on the map was in Lufkin, Texas. Unfortunately, the Sterling Lumber company there is not building panels for houses and offices. They use them as mats (pallets, skids, and lagging lumber) on muddy construction sites, so vehicles and cranes have a solid base. As Parsons explained, the real heavy lifting in the supply chain is less about getting architects on board than persuading construction companies and the wood industry to embrace mass timber.
The first keynote speaker, Hubert Rhomberg, CEO and founder of Cree GmbH of Bregenz in Austria, gave a hyper-positive account of mass timber building in Europe. A master builder and civil engineer, Rhomberg cited the value of fast, modular assembly of buildings from panels. Germany has a retirement rate of construction workers far higher than North America's. The skills shortage means faster assembly with less workers is essential.
Rhomberg showed a time-lapse video of a wooden office building going up, one story per day using only five workers, and said the biggest slowdown factor was how long it took to erect scaffolding, so they did away with it. He showed images of autonomous dump trucks going about their business in quarries. He also pressed the feelgood factor (biophilia) of kindergartens with exposed wood, saying children there were proven to be less aggressive.
Get the word out
The conference then broke out into various tracks for detailed discussion of case studies. One called "Strategizing and Celebrating Mass Timber Success" summed up the industry's excitement coupled with it's lack of recognition. Mass timber's advocates see it as a game changer that is being ignored by the mainstream, where stick-built single homes consume most of the dimensional lumber.
Ichiro Nakajima of Sumitomo Forestry talked about the W350Plan. This is Sumitomo's goal to become the top mass timber company in the world on its 350th birthday, in 2041. The company began in 1691 using timber harvested in neighboring forestlands to fortify the Besshi copper mine, where the Sumitomo family started mining operations. In 1894, the manager of the Besshi copper mine prepared a forestation plan in the spirit of repaying for what had been reaped from the land.
To achieve this ambitious goal, they are designing a 70-story timber building — 350 meters tall and named W350 — in Tokyo, Japan, which will be the tallest timber tower in the world. It will be 90 percent timber, 10 percent steel, and resemble a living building, with plants growing on it and birds flying around inside.
Oregon State University and the University of Oregon usually show up in mass timber discussions because of their excellent research facilities. But now they're not alone.
Dr. Tahar Messadi, Associate Professor of Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, University of Arkansas, talked about being a timber university in a state that is 60 percent forested. (Georgia is the state with the highest percentage of forest land, for the record.)
He talked about the school's program in Fayetteville, which links the school with every kind of business that might have anything to do with lumber or design, and the USDA Forest Science Lab at Monticello, Arkansas. (Even Portland's Tom Robinson of LEVER Architecture has been there to give a talk on mass timber.) Messadi skillfully namedropped Framework, Puukuokka, the eight-story CLT apartment block in Finland, and designer Virginia San Fratello of Emerging Objects who recently received the New York Times star treatment.
At the University of Arkansas, the architecture and engineering students spend a week in the woods with a chemical engineer just getting a feel for the materials, and they internalize the short, 1969 movie "Powers of Ten" by Charles and Ray Eames. The campus has two mass timber buildings, one for students and one a book storage building.
Public policy is important to mass timber. Politicians are paying attention. "It takes the government to make a one government building a timber building to spin everything," Messadi said, talking of a breakthrough that many are hoping for.
In planning a mass timber residence hall, fear was on many people's minds.
"A lot of education needs to happen. There are so many fears about fire and water. You could see that it's not something that's very familiar." When the panels arrived, all the penetrations for the plumbing were misplaced — 3,700 of them — so he could see how designers, engineers, fabricators and construction workers may not be on the same page yet. Also, he noted, the panels came from Austria, which affects the project's carbon footprint.
Iain Macdonald, director of the TallWood Design Institute, talked about the Pacific Northwest and mass timber. Much is owed to Canadians, particularly British Columbia for its 2009 Wood First Act, "triggering a wave of mass timber building projects around the province, and encouraging the birth of North America's first CLT manufacturer." He said the Wood First Act was provincial legislation but 50 municipalities adopted their own version of it to encourage schools, and libraries to be built of wood.
There are now four production facilities in Washington and Oregon and one more in Montana. "In 2018 Oregon was the first state to endorse and implement the ICC tall wood code changes," he said.
Macdonald singled out buildings such as the Olympic Oval, the speed skating hall in Richmond, B.C., whose dimensional number and glulam beams captured the world's imagination. The Vancouver Convention Center, the University of British Columbia and the REI headquarters all are conspicuously wooden in structure and finish.
The Wood Innovation Design Center in Northern B.C. was the tallest in North America at 18 stories until it was eclipsed this month by Mjøstårnet in Brumunddal, Norway, at 84.5 meters tall. Macdonald gave shoutouts to panel maker DR Johnson of Riddle, Oregon, the first certified CLT manufacturer in the U.S., and in Portland to Albina Yard by LEVER and Carbon 12 by Path Architecture. And although Framework did not get built, he said the attendant fire and seismic research would not go to waste.
Mass timber is attracting a younger, idealist group of ACE professionals, who are value feelings in addition to money. Emily Dawson an architect at PATH Architecture, talked about their high-end condo building Carbon 12 on North Williams Street. She explained that although it was expensive at $33 a square foot, tenants were attracted to the exposed wood. When they designed the Canyons, a six-story age-in-place building, they could have saved $362,000 by using stick instead of CLT and exposed walkways. They found that the premium they'd be paying for the CLT, including the warm surfaces, the biophilia and the fact that it would be leased sooner, came to $0.36 a square foot, which was less than the cost of dry wall.
"It has built-in social and environmental values: carbon reduction and the health and happiness of the tenants," she said. "Return on investment has no meaning without contributing to a climate change solution and being beautiful."
On the conference floor, there were the usual people selling software and services, but some striking objects stood out.
Nick Desimone, in sales and project management at SmartLam, showed off a wooden structure that he called "an inspirational demonstration piece that highlights how CLT can be used." Attendees could walk on it, touch it, jiggle it and smell it. They could also play on a Doug fir CLT ping pong table. SmartLam of Columbia Falls, Montana, does design, fabrication and installation of CLT panels. They're building a home in Bend, designed by Mork Ulnes of San Francisco, but mostly they do commercial buildings, like a five-story hotel in Fort Lewis. (The wood is hidden, it is just used for its structural properties.)
"CLT is a great alternative to concrete and steel, it increases your speed of build, and offers some unique design opportunities."
Kyle Freres and Tyler Freres are brothers who work at Freres Lumber Company. It makes wood products including veneer, plywood panels and mass timber. They just got their plant in Lions, Oregon, certified in August 2018.
This year they worked again with LEVER to showcase how thin their materials can be. The array of 2-inch-thick panels were arranged like a deck of cards, in the form of a pyramidal cave with a bench and tables inside. "It's simple screw connections and plate connections, the contractors can get their heads around it," said Kyle. "It's more whether the engineers want to design for it."
Kevin Clement at LEVER designed the wooden structure in CADworks. It was exported into Lignocam at the plant where a router cut the curves and holes. It came into the conference center in eight pieces. They want to donate it in the hope it will find a permanent home in a public place, as an ad for CLT.
Valerie Johnson, CEO of DR Johnson, the CLT maker, told the Business Tribune that Europe is still 25 years ahead of North America.
She says government got the word out initially and the industry has some non-profit associations too. "Interest grows here exponentially every year." Now the wood products industry is taking note.
"It's a story about how much can get done quickly and well if enough people care enough about it to push it. It's the entire circle of players it takes, including the people willing to put the money up to try a building like this, the contractors learning how to do it, the engineers, etc. It's a major, major evolution in building. And yet it's going back to basics, of large solid timbers."
Johnson says they are busy. "We're booked solid until Thanksgiving. We're trying to figure out how to make more. It takes more than another press, there's the gluing, the fabrication, plus space for storage, and there is a large amount of work done up front. We deliver a completed project, basically an entire building in a box. It takes high quality people focusing on the details so nothing goes wrong."
The International Mass Timber Conference is billed as the largest gathering of cross-laminated timber and other mass timber experts in the world. With more than 1,200 experts from 22 countries expected to attend, it's a chance for the architecture, engineering and construction trades to catch up on all that's new in building with wood. Mass timber includes cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber, glulam beams and panels, mass plywood panels, dowel-laminated timber, and laminated veneer lumber.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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