Digital Builder Ep 84: How Mass Timber is Changing Construction

When venturing out to non-traditional tools and processes, a healthy amount of skepticism is normal. People are naturally resistant to change, and implementing new methodologies feels uncomfortable. However, if we don't try new things or adopt fresh innovations, we risk falling behind and missing out on opportunities. 

One example of a non-traditional approach to building is mass timber. While the material has been used in Europe for over a decade, it hasn't hit the mainstream construction market in the US until recently. There are several misconceptions about mass timber, and folks can be hesitant to embrace it as a viable building material. 

Here to shed light on the subject is Ariana Cohn, Digital Construction Engineer at Timberlab, an employee-owned firm that focuses on mass timber. I had the pleasure of speaking with her at Autodesk University 2023, and we touched on several interesting points, including common myths,  reasons to be bullish about the methodology, and the steps you can take to ensure your mass timber initiatives are successful. 

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On this episode 

We discuss: 

  • The top misconceptions about mass timber 
  • Timberlab’s approach to its mission 
  • A day in the life of a Digital Construction Engineer at Timberlab 
  • The biggest obstacles for mass timber’s mainstream adoption 

An overview of mass timber 

Let's level set: what exactly is mass timber? 

According to Ariana, as a product, mass timber is structurally engineered wood.  

"When discussing mass timber, we commonly refer to cross-laminated timber (CLT) or glulam—that is, glue-laminated timber," she explains.  

These types of mass timber differ in their use cases. CLT is often used in panels and sheer walls, while glue-laminated timber would be for posts and beams.  

Why more people are talking about mass timber 

Mass timber has been gaining more transactions as of late, and it's not hard to see why. There are plenty of benefits to using it. 

Good for the environment 

Ariana says mass timber's sustainability is one of the things that draws people to it. 

"Mass timber really has that element where you feel good about building it. It's good for the people, and it's good for the planet. The amount of embodied carbon is so much less than in a traditional construction." 

Increases speed of construction 

What’s more, construction efficiency with mass timber can reduce building timelines. 

"Due to the nature of prefabricated offsite construction, working with mass timber is so much faster. We can take six weeks or more off the schedule compared to a typical building." 

Ariana also highlights the benefit of mass timber's reduced weight on construction logistics and foundation requirements. 

"It's so much lighter. So not only are we eliminating concrete in a big portion of the occupied building space, but we are eliminating a lot of the foundation needed just because of the nature of the lighter material." 

Improves safety on site 

Then there's the benefit of safety because using mass timber reduces the need for having too many people on site. This helps lower the risk of safety incidents.  

"Since there is so much prefabrication involved, we implement offsite construction and ship parts to site. So, there's less onsite skilled labor needed, and less work being done, and it's so much safer. We see fewer accidents," Ariana remarks. 

Helps alleviate the labor shortage 

Speaking of having fewer people on site, mass timber can help firms struggling with hiring skilled workers.  

As Ariana puts it, "There are labor shortages all around. With mass timber, we create a kit of parts where we basically make an Ikea assembly booklet, ship it to the site, and assemble it there. So, it's fast, it's safe, and it's less costly in terms of labor." 

Common myths and misconceptions 

Like most non-traditional products and methods, mass timber has its fair share of myths and misconceptions.  

According to Ariana, the most common concern is about fire.  

"Fire resistance in mass timber is a huge topic of research and debate, but it's really interesting because timber and wood, in general, actually have inherent fire-resistant properties. Wood forms this char layer, so a tree or mass timber forms a char layer around, which slows the speed at which wood burns," she says. 

Some folks may also have misgivings about mass timber and deforestation.  

"When people think of mass timber, they think we're cutting down trees when that's not the case. Mass timber and lumber actually put an emphasis on forestry management and creating sustainable forests." 

Ariana continues, "We're not harvesting old large trees. No one does that anymore. We're really looking for younger trees and it allows us to use those trees that previously, might have just been cut down and thrown away to protect against wildfires." 

She emphasizes that mass timber vendors adhere to standards that ensure environmental responsibility. 

According to Ariana, "There's a number of certifications different suppliers can have to show that they meet the proper sustainability standards." 

What are its limitations? 

No material is perfect, and when it comes to mass timber, Ariana says construction pros need to be mindful of regulatory challenges and code compliance. 

"The biggest limitation we're seeing right now is code adoption because mass timber is a newer industry in the US." 

In particular, there needs to be more code adoption in terms of using mass timber for diverse structural applications, especially concerning lateral and seismic resistance. 

The good news is that the mass timber industry is working to overcome these challenges. 

"A number of individuals, including those at Timberlab and outside, are conducting research daily to aid the process of adopting more codes in all jurisdictions and proving that mass timber can work in many different applications," she shares. 

How can we get people to consider mass timber? 

Convincing people to adopt mass timber starts with education and clearing up misconceptions. Ariana also recommends providing context about how mass timber fits with other trades and materials.  

"Everything we're doing is in context with every other trade and building material," she says.  

The classic advice about "show, don't tell" people applies to mass timber, too.  

"We love to bring people to our fabrication facility and show them the accuracy with which our CNC machine operates and our whole process," shares Ariana.  

Finally, she advises people to listen and hear their concerns about mass timber. Doing so helps build trust and address any specific concerns directly. 

For example, if someone has had a negative experience with mass timber in the past, it helps to listen to their concerns and discuss what happened so you can ensure it doesn't happen again.  

Future trends and outlook: what's on the horizon for mass timber? 

What's next for mass timber? Ariana is most looking forward to software advancements that will expand mass timber applications. 

Beyond that, she's thrilled to see the innovations and ongoing research happening in the industry. 

"Like I said earlier, a lot of research is being done right now to test mass timber for different structural elements." 

She continues, "I'm really excited about that potential and how we can utilize mass timber in all different ways." 

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Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week.

Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.