A quiet revolution is going on a corner of the wood products industry with potentially far-reaching economic implications for Western Oregon. It involves the use of “mass timber” — engineered wood products made by bonding layers of wood together at right angles, including cross-laminated timber, nail-laminated timber and glue-laminated timber.
A bipartisan bill has just been introduced in Congress that would create a research and development program for building tall structures using mass timber. It would provide grants to state and local governments and universities to research and promote its use. The bill also would create incentives to retrofit existing buildings in areas with high unemployment rates with the aim of creating jobs in rural areas. The bill is supported by most of the Oregon congressional delegation, including Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio.
Not surprisingly, this fledgling industry is facing strong — and loud — opposition from other industries that make their money from other construction materials, such as cement and concrete. Opponents insist use of mass timber products will result in buildings all over the country burning to the ground or falling down.
In reality, mass timber has been in use in Europe and Canada for years, including in buildings far taller than those currently being built in the United States.
U.S. proponents point out that building codes require all building systems to perform to the same level of fire safety, regardless of material used, and cite research and building code development that shows mass timber structures can meet or exceed the most demanding earthquake and seismic design requirements.
As the cherry on top, they note that mass timber has a smaller carbon footprint than other traditional building materials, and doesn’t require cutting down mature trees — spindly ones as small as four inches in diameter will work.
As interest in this building material increases, Western Oregon is poised to become a leader in its development. A Riddle company, D.R. Johnson, was the first company in the U.S. certified to produce cross-laminated timber.
In Portland, which landed the 2017 Mass Timber Conference later this month, work is underway on the tallest building in the country using cross-laminated timber, another planned building was co-winner of the national Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, and several smaller buildings have been completed. In Springfield, a planned four-story parking garage using cross-laminated timber won first place in a statewide design contest.
Mass timber promises a number of benefits, from job creation in rural areas to a greener building material, and deserves fair consideration.
The bill now before Congress offers the promise of research, as well as development of a new product, which should reassure those who have concerns about it. The potential upside of rural jobs and economic development make it deserving of support.
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