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Unlocking the Future of Mass Timber in North America

The Rapid Rise of Mass Timber

The mass timber industry in North America is on the cusp of a major transformation. Over the next 5 years, we're poised to see a massive growth explosion as this niche market becomes a standardized product. Industry experts project year-over-year growth rates between 35-43%. This rapid expansion is driven by growing demand from developers who want to build large-scale mass timber projects, with some eyeing as much as 10 million square feet of new construction.

However, this surging demand will be limited by production capacity. To meet this challenge, we'll see a significant number of new entrants into the mass timber market, both on the West and East coasts of North America, as well as in the US South. These new players will include existing groups adding new plants, as well as entirely new business entities looking to explore different parts of the value chain.

The Evolution of Mass Timber in North America

Mass timber, or "heavy timber" as it was previously known, has been present in building codes in Canada and the US for some time. Over time, as fire testing was conducted, the evidence showed that these structures were able to withstand fire damage far better than expected. The codes and discussions around mass timber then evolved to recognize that properly designed and engineered mass timber can self-char and protect itself, allowing for the development of taller and larger mass timber buildings while still respecting life safety and building code requirements.

Another key factor in the rise of mass timber was the shift away from the abundant supply of large, old-growth timber that was previously available. With these resources growing more scarce and, rightfulyl so, being protected, the wood industry turned to engineered mass timber products like cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glue-laminated timber (glulam) as a way to utilize smaller, sustainably-grown timber in a more efficient and structurally-sound manner.

The Emergence of Mass Timber Typologies

As the mass timber industry has matured, we're starting to see the development of new building typologies that are better suited to the unique properties and capabilities of mass timber. The legacy of building typologies designed for steel and concrete construction has presented some challenges, as the architectural forms and grid layouts were not necessarily optimized for mass timber.

However, we're now seeing the emergence of mass timber optimized construction tupes, such as the post-and-plate system, which has seen a rapid increase in adoption, with 6 buildings in North America and 12 in Europe currently under construction. Additionally, we're witnessing a surge in mass timber residential projects, including student housing, affordable housing, and market-rate condominiums. These residential typologies are leveraging the speed of installation and cost-competitiveness of mass timber to provide viable alternatives and market differentiation to traditional construction methods.

Overcoming Supply Chain Challenges

One of the key barriers to widespread mass timber adoption has been the reliability and certainty of the supply chain. Developers who want to build large-scale mass timber projects need the assurance that the necessary materials and components can be supplied consistently and on-time. This has led to a shift in the industry, where we're now seeing more vertical integration, with companies controlling the entire value chain from the forest to the factory to the final building.

However, the optimal approach to supply chain integration is still a topic of debate. Some argue for complete vertical integration, while others believe in forming strategic partnerships and relationships throughout the value chain. The industry is still navigating this balance, but the leaders will be those who can provide the most reliable and efficient supply chain, whether through their own vertically-integrated operations or through a network of trusted partners.

The Benefits of Mass Timber

For developers and owners, the primary drivers for choosing mass timber go beyond just the aesthetic appeal. The key benefits lie in the ability to achieve known costs and schedule certainty through digital fabrication and advanced modeling. By integrating the design, fabrication, and construction processes, mass timber projects can provide a level of cost predictability and control that is difficult to achieve with traditional construction methods.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that the net present value of mass timber buildings can be significantly better than comparable steel and concrete structures. This, combined with the speed of installation and the sustainability benefits of using a renewable resource, makes mass timber an increasingly attractive option for developers and owners.

The Future of Mass Timber

As the mass timber industry continues to evolve, we can expect to see several key advancements in the coming years. Parametric design software and other digital tools will help streamline the design-to-fabrication process, reducing the time and cost associated with mass timber projects. We'll also see more hybrid construction systems, combining mass timber with materials like concrete adn steel, to optimize structural performance and cost-effectiveness.

The real game-changer, however, will be the influx of new manufacturing capacity. With a significant number of new entrants expected on both the West and East coasts, as well as in the US South. This increased production capacity, coupled with the continued development of digital tools and process optimization, will unlock the true potential of mass timber as a mainstream construction material in North America.

For architects, engineers, developers, and construction professionals, staying ahead of these industry shifts will be crucial to success. By embracing the latest advancements in mass timber technology, design, and manufacturing, they can position themselves as leaders in this rapidly evolving market and capitalize on the many benefits that mass timber has to offer.

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