Do newer mass timber products hold the key to safer, taller wood buildings in the United States?

The American Wood Council thinks so, and is partnering with the nation’s leading fire-protection group to find out.

Jumpstarted by a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the council will conduct research on the fire performance of mass timber buildings in partnership with the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Protection Research Foundation and the Property Insurance Research Group.

Success Stories

The American Wood Council, which represents wood products manufacturers, aims to accelerate construction of taller wood buildings in the United States by demonstrating the fire performance of newer mass timber products.

Recent years have seen the completion of several wood buildings around the world using mass timber technology, the council notes.

The projects include a nine-story building in London; a 10-story in Prince George, Canada; and a 14-story building now under construction in Bergen, Norway.

“These buildings have consistently demonstrated the successful application of mass timber technologies,” according to AWC.

Returning to Wood

Other stakeholders have also been pursuing the return of wood buildings, which fell out of favor decades ago for their fire hazards and perceived weakness compared to steel, concrete and other building materials.

The industry’s new message: Wood is sustainable, less expensive, versatile, durable and—last, but certainly not least—meets code.

Typically, today’s “wood” construction refers to Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), an engineered wood building system designed to complement light- and heavy-timber framing options. Composite wood-concrete and wood-steel buidling systems have also advanced.

In 2008, the Wood Works Council  launched an initiative called WoodWorks, designed to support architects, engineers and builders considering or using wood in non-residential construction. The council is a cooperative venture of major North American wood associations, government agencies and funding partners.

Wood Works says CLT, long used in Europe and now available in North America, offers structural simplicity, fast installation, reduced waste, improved thermal performance, and design versatility.

CLT “can be used in a wide range of applications, including mid-rise, urban infill, industrial, educational and civic structures,” according to Wood Works.

Rethinking Wood

In 2011, the Softwood Lumber Board and other industry groups launched reThink Wood, which offers code support, design tools, education and other resources to the architectural and building industry.

In November 2014, the Wood Works Council sponsored a symposium called “Toward Taller Wood Buildings” in Chicago. Among the projects displayed was a model of a 42-story wood building by architects Skidmore Owings Merrill.

designed by Skidmore Owings Merrill archite

Symposium presenters included Natural Resources Canada, which discussed that country’s return to wood construction. The presentation noted strong recent interest in specifying wood for non-residential, mid- and high-rise buildings, due to the development of CLT, growing environmental concerns, new design tools and changes in building codes.

The International Building Code now allows five stories of wood-frame construction (plus a wood mezzanine) for most occupancy types, including multi-residential, and six stories for business, reThink Wood reported in November.

“These buildings, which utilize dimension lumber and structural wood panels as well as engineered lumber components, have proven themselves to be cost-effective alternatives to light-gauge steel and concrete.”