Building with wood connects us to our environment

Nov 21, 2013

World demographic statistics report that one person in three, or one billion people, actually live in slum conditions.  One hundred million people across the globe are homeless and over the next 20 years, three billion people, or forty percent of the world’s population, will need a new home.  The scale of the challenge facing society is staggering.

City structures have been predominately built with concrete and steel.  Even though these materials are durable, their process produces very high energy costs and green house gas emissions.  The process that produces structural steel and concrete contributes eight percent of the world’s green house gases.  The use of concrete and steel, as building materials, are important to the construction industry and our economy, and not going to be replaced.  However, in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead, we must think how to incorporate the use of wood, as a structural material, and not just as a finish product.

Wood is the only building material that is grown by the power of the sun.  Trees give off oxygen and soak up carbon dioxide.  One cubic meter of wood stores one tonne of carbon dioxide.  When a tree dies or is consumed by fire, it releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere.    Two solutions to the world’s climate stresses are to reduce our emissions and find storage.  Wood is the only major building material that actually does both. Turning wood fiber into products stores the carbon – forever.  In essence, wood is nature’s fingerprint.  The use of wood, in our building structures, connects us to our environment as no other building material can. 

Scientific engineering models show that North American forests grow a 20-story wood structure every 13 minutes.  This structure would store roughly 3000 tonnes of carbon or the equivalent of removing emissions from 900 cars every year.  Unfortunately, most universal building codes do not allow the construction of wood buildings that are taller than four stories.

One solution, that addresses structural integrity in taller wood buildings, is the development of what is known as “mass timber panels.”  These panels are made from young or suppressed growth trees, and small pieces of wood glued together.  These “mass timber panels” are eight feet wide and 64 feet long with various thicknesses, and are flexible enough to be erected six stories at a time. 

These panels were recently used in a nine story wood structure in London, an 11-story structure in Australia, and a 20-story wood structure is nearing completion in Vancouver, British Columbia.  The race for the tallest wooden skyscraper seems to be on, as a 30-story structure is proposed in Austria and a 34-story structure is slated for Sweden.  This race is similar to the race back in the 1800’s when the first 10-story concrete and steel skyscraper was built in Chicago in 1885.

Montana, being the rural state that it is, is not likely to build a 20 or 30-story wooden skyscraper anytime soon, however, there are opportunities to incorporate wood as both structural and finish materials in new building construction.  Take for example, the new College of Technology (COT) building proposed for the University of Montana campus.  The new COT proposes to be around 100,000 square feet on four floors.  Montana’s wood products industry manufactures many of the products and materials that can and should be incorporated into the building design.  They manufacture trusses, beams, lumber, plywood, fiber and particleboard, flooring, exterior siding, fascia trim and accents, and so on.  After all, it is the College of Technology; an ideal location to highlight all the new innovations in wood product materials.

The use of concrete and steel, in building structures, is important to Montana and the global economy.  However, incorporating the use of wood into structural design is the way of the future. New innovative building materials are not only structurally sound, building with wood reduces our carbon footprint and connects us to our environment in a way that other building materials simply cannot.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus. Thanks for listening.