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Imagining A Mass Timber Future

In recent blog posts on mass timber, we’ve covered mass timber’s rapid growth trajectory, its potential to reduce carbon emissions, and some challenges the industry is currently facing. We hope that this has given you additional insight on this exciting industry, and gotten you as excited about mass timber as we are.

Now, we want you to imagine the future beyond those challenges. What would Canada look like with an industrial scale, fully operational mass timber supply chain providing affordable climate-smart housing? If 50% of new multi-storey construction in Ontario were built in mass timber, that would correspond to a demand for 6.5M m3 of mass timber per year, a $4.5B market. That much mass timber would sequester 4.4 Mt CO2, 15% of the total emissions of Ontario’s construction sector (~24 Mt CO2 2018). By avoiding another 9 Mt of CO2 emissions through not producing concrete or steel, that would reduce Canada’s total emissions across all sectors by nearly 2%.

It’s important to envision not just what this would look like in metrics, but aesthetically as well. Using mass timber at scale would transform the look of the built environment, especially in cities where concrete and steel dominate as construction materials. And then there are the economic benefits of highly skilled, good-paying jobs supporting northern communities and First Nations. 

Future Architecture Today with Mass Timber

Carbon12 is a mid-rise multifamily residential project in Portland constructed in mass timber, emphasizing a clean, modern, and natural look. It is a good case study of what mass timber residential buildings would look like at scale.

Carbon12, Portland, OR, USA (Kaiser + Path)

Buildings with exposed mass timber elements feel (and smell) more natural and ecologically-oriented, which can lead to greater tenant satisfaction and higher rents. There is some research that points towards a “biophilic” effect, where being in buildings with a connection to nature can have a desirable calming effect, greater worker productivity, and even better health or educational results (for hospitals and schools). There is some evidence that exposed structural wood in retail can lead to higher sales and greater customer satisfaction – some top US retailers have started to experiment with this, such as McDonald’s Chicago Flagship location, built in mass timber.

McDonald’s Flagship, Chicago, IL, USA (Ross Barney Architects)

Mass timber also enables innovative architectural techniques. The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, CA uses a unique mass timber structural system with a glass sheath to create a delicate and majestic interplay of light, shadow, and shapes.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA, USA (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP)

The result of an MIT Mass Timber Design workshop, the Longhouse Concept builds upon the traditional longhouse, a building common to indigenous architecture across the Americas, Asia, and Europe. In indigenous communities, longhouses were “places of community gathering, civil government, communal work, and an overall space for knowledge exchange”. The mass timber longhouse is similarly designed to be a multi-purpose community space, flexibly suitable for community events, co-working, exhibitions, lectures, and so on. The concept aims to use mass timber production techniques to create this concept sustainably and affordably, even embedding solar panels into the building sheath to be a net energy producer.

MIT Longhouse Concept, Boston, MA, USA (Mass Timber Design Workshop)

Sidewalk Labs Toronto’s cancelled Quayside project allows us to imagine large-scale mass timber developments. Though the project experienced some controversy over privacy and planned uses of personal data, unconnected from this aspect of the project was the plan for Quayside to be built entirely out of mass timber, including a massive, 35-storey mass timber tower that would have been the world’s tallest by more than 15 storeys. Concepts from the plan can give us inspiration for what a future mass timber neighborhood of modern, sustainable buildings might look like.

Sidewalk Toronto Renderings, Toronto, ON, Canada (Snøhetta)

“Kit of Parts”: Modular and Prefabricated Production

Another element of Sidewalk’s work which we can learn from is the “kit of parts” production system, which takes the DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) concept which we discussed in a previous post even further. DfMA refers to the approach of designing buildings with ease of manufacturing and assembly (construction) in mind, aided by digital tools like building information modeling (BIM) to automate complex steps and enable mass customization of buildings. Sidewalk’s kit of parts in their mass timber prototype system, described in this blog post, takes DfMA a step further, and envisions a LEGO-like set of standardized building elements. These elements are fully modular, and different modules encompass all of the different necessary components of the building, from walls and floors to bathroom modules, electrical and plumbing systems, etc. This can greatly simplify design, manufacturing, and construction, driving significant cost savings.

Representative images of the kit of parts that form Sidewalk’s prototype (Michael Green Architecture)

Because of the mass customization enabled through mass timber manufacturing, even these prefabricated, highly modularized buildings can have a unique character and feel. Sidewalk Labs wanted to “to defy [the history of prefab cookie-cutter suburban homes], showing that prefabrication can still yield interesting architecture,” and created a showcase of several possible building envelopes possible through the kit of parts production model that display a wide array of architectural styles.

PMX Facade Skins

Affordable Housing

These cost-saving techniques of modular and prefabricated construction give mass timber high potential for building housing that is modern, sustainable, and affordable. Lack of affordable housing is a critical contemporary issue, and many see mass timber as part of the solution. Several cities have already started planning and building affordable housing using mass timber, such as Boston and Vancouver. Several other jurisdictions- Ontario, Oregon, Los Angeles among them – have all expressed interest in exploring the potential of mass timber to deliver more affordable housing for residents.

So What Happens Next?

This future looks great, but what are more immediate next steps? We’ve outlined a few short-term actions for various stakeholders in the ecosystem to build a robust mass timber industry and elevate Canada to a global leader.

Policy: national building codes are changing to allow for more mass timber construction, but this does not automatically filter down to the local level. More advocacy is needed at provincial and municipal levels to help policymakers understand the benefits of mass timber and how to facilitate a local industry. Governments can also build in mass timber themselves, helping the industry scale up. Design competitions in mass timber also spread interest in the industry and help build industry partnerships and familiarity.

Research: enabling policy work must be supported by further research including into mass timber’s carbon benefit. While its structural capabilities have been the subject of extensive research, there are many gaps for additional research to fill. More accurate investigations in project cost are needed in several geographies, including comparisons to traditional materials and linking differences in costs to explanatory factors. Research should be expanded on quantifying other benefits such as tenant satisfaction (including any “biophilic” effects), construction speed, and total life cycle carbon impact.

Additional research on enhanced production processes would also be valuable. Currently Europe (specifically Austria) leads in mass timber production methods, but Canada has a strong history in forestry and a robust research landscape. Researching improved production methods, materials, and so on could differentiate the Canadian industry on the world stage.

Production: local production in Ontario should be ramped up; in other geographies increased production volumes induced further demand by making it easier to build, and Ontario’s market has much untapped demand potential in mass timber. Canada has tremendous natural forestry resources and the infrastructure in place to manage and harvest it sustainably. This should be leveraged, and Canada can position itself as a world-class mass timber producer.

Demand: Real estate investors seeking better returns through sustainable building practices, savings on building costs, differentiated buildings, and higher rents should consider adding mass timber building to their toolkit. Governments should play a critical role here in prioritizing mass timber production for public construction projects – this baseline of demand will make private developers more confident in the resiliency of the mass timber supply chain and more likely to build in mass timber.

Green Finance: existing green bond frameworks should in theory help lower the cost of capital for green construction; more research and industry coordination should investigate the potential for green finance to support mass timber and other elements of green construction practices.

It’s truly an exciting time in mass timber. At Mantle Developments, we’re excited about mass timber as a sustainable and economically viable material that’s also beautiful, relatively easy to implement, and safe. The growth of mass timber in the past few years has exploded, and to us the momentum seems unstoppable. Despite the challenges in the industry, it’s hard to imagine a future where mass timber doesn’t play a much larger role in construction than it does today. Mass timber makes it much easier to imagine a future where construction is not just carbon efficient, but potentially even carbon negative.

At Mantle Developments we plan to stay at the forefront of the Canadian mass timber industry and work together with partners across the country to grow Canada into the center of mass timber production. Keep an eye out for further developments here, as well as our partners at the Mass Timber Institute and the Element5 consortium. Mass timber’s time has come, and it’s time for Canada to lead the way!

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