Wood Construction Competes with Concrete and Steel

by | Sep 25, 2020 | All

There was a time when nearly all buildings were constructed with wood, and that continued through the late 1800s. But in the modern age of urban growth, concrete and steel are the reigning kings of tall office building construction.

A recent New York Times article, “As Concerns Over Climate Change Rise, More Developers Turn to Wood,” describes the latest “mass timber” office building to be built in the U.S., bringing the total to 384 since 2011.

The five-story Catalyst building, located in Spokane, WA, was built for Eastern Washington University by Menlo Park, CA-based construction company Katerra. Of the nine plants in the U.S. that manufacture cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, Katerra has two automated plants, one adjacent to Spokane. As more and more developers specify mass timber construction, Katerra has found itself on the cusp of rapidly increasing market demand for ecologically sensitive buildings. The New York Times article reports that Katerra currently has $4-billion in orders, more than double last year’s revenues.

Cross laminated timber

For years, architects, engineers and academics have been studying the possibility of high-rise timber construction. One example is the research project among the University of Cambridge, Perkins and Will Architects and Thornton Tomasetti Engineers on the 80-story River Beech Tower in Chicago, a city long known for its concrete and metal construction. Across the US, it is estimated that 500 mass timber buildings – those using timber as the load bearing structure – are under construction or in the planning phase.

Brock Commons, photo: University of British Columbia

Wood is even being used in modular construction, as demonstrated on the 18-story Brock Commons dormitory in Vancouver, with modules that, as the Wired article “Get Ready for Skyscrapers Made of Wood” described, “snap together like oversized Lego.” Citing material and process efficiency and environmental performance, the Wood Institute features a continuing education class on designing sustainable prefabricated buildings. According to Katerra, building with CLT panels offers 30% faster construction.

Cross-laminated timber has helped push wood beyond its perceived boundaries as a construction material for tall buildings. Along with glue-laminated, nail-laminated and dowel-laminated timber, CLT expands timber’s stability, strength and flexibility. Not only is wood favored for being a renewable resource, it is touted as a carbon sink, and when used in massive buildings, promises to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

For architects, the use of mass timber differentiates their projects in an abounding market. An article in YaleEnvironment360 explains that wood has a very appealing aesthetic quality, often described as “warmth.” There’s also a case for thermal and acoustic performance, faster building assembly and less construction waste. Ultimately, these budget-friendly benefits could be the driving factors behind the newfound popularity of timber construction.


Photo: Wood Institute

As production of CLT panels, beams and columns increases, the law of supply and demand will kick in, and the cost of mass timber construction will decrease. The time to completion for a mass timber project, already shorter than one using concrete or steel according to a Katerra mass timber architect, also promises to decrease. When you’re talking a 30% decrease in schedule, as with modular processes, that speaks volumes to the owners who are specifying the type of building they want to commission – and pay for.

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