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Sky-High Demand for Wood
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Builders increasingly are turning to cross-laminated timbers for tall buildings in place of concrete and steel.

By Richard W. Goeken and Kathleen Y. Hsu

New technology is allowing for greater use of wood as a structural component in tall buildings. Products such as cross-laminated timbers have been shown to perform comparably to more traditional but less sustainable materials such as steel and concrete.

             

Cross-laminated timbers, which can be produced from southern yellow pine and yellow poplar, consist of three, five or seven layers of wood beams that are laid at right angles to one another and bound together with a specially designed adhesive. Use of this cross-laminated timber in tall buildings carries several advantages: the resulting timbers can be cut to desired dimensions, yielding structural components that are lighter than concrete and steel, and the adhe

sive used in producing cross-laminated timbers combined with the density of the wood itself creates buildings that are surprisingly fire resistant.

 

Other advantages of building with structural wood are that construction can be completed more quickly, with less noise, waste, and labor costs than structures utilizing more traditional building materials. And, unlike cross-laminated timbers, most traditional building materials have a larger carbon footprint and do not carry comparable “green” certification that often applies to forest products.  For these reasons, the incorporation of structural wood materials into tall building construction is gaining momentum. 

 

Southern Pine and Yellow Poplar Perform Well in Cross-Laminated Timbers

 

In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture awarded special grants to Virginia Tech and to a joint North Carolina State-Clemson timber panel to manufacture and research the use of southern pine and yellow poplar in cross-laminated timber.

 

These studies compared southern pine and yellow poplar cross-laminated timber to the American Plywood Association Standard for Performance Rated Cross-Laminated Timber, which provides the U.S. standards for cross-laminated timbers.  Both species were found to meet or exceed the standard in most but not all respects. Testing of the use of both species for use as structural components of tall buildings is ongoing. 

 

In 2016, the House Appropriations Committee included a provision that encouraged the Department of Defense to collaborate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to develop a plan on expanding the use of innovative renewable building materials, including cross-laminated timbers. The Department of Defense has already awarded a contract for hotel construction in Alabama that exclusively used cross-laminated timbers as structural components. 

 

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in partnership with the Softwood Lumber Board and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, announced the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. The competition was open to teams of architects, engineers, and developers, and was designed to showcase the architectural and commercial viability of advanced wood products in tall buildings.

 

In 2015, the two winners each received grants of $1.5 million. The West Coast winner was a project called “Framework,” a 12-story building to be constructed primarily of cross-laminated timbers, which will house a blend of street-level retail, office, housing and community space. On the East Coast, a 10-story condominium building, to be the largest wooden structure in the New York City, was named the winner.  

 

Recently, both houses of Congress introduced bipartisan “Timber Innovation Act” bills (HR. 5628, S. Bill 2892), which would authorize the Tall Wood Building Prize Competition annually for five years. The Act would also create federal grants to advance the research, development, and use of wood as a structural material in tall building construction - i.e. buildings approximately seven or more stories tall. Not surprisingly, this Act has garnered strong support from the forest products industry.

 

In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that an alliance between Oregon and Washington private forest products companies and research institutions was eligible to apply for federal funding from the “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership” to assist in the development of a market for cross-laminated timber. Similar opportunities for federal funding of such public-private partnerships also may be pursued in the Southeast.


Private Projects Also Increase Their Use of Cross-Laminated Timbers

 

Not to be outdone, private projects also are getting into the game. Examples include the use of cross-laminated timbers for two multi-story buildings on the West Coast, a large pavilion on the lakeshore in Chicago, as well as building a zoo in Oregon.  There are also plans to construct a building made of cross-laminated timbers on a state university campus, which is funded in part by private equity. 

 

In early April 2016, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) announced expansion of the wood certification programs it would recognize as qualifying for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) credits. The LEED program is a green building certification program that uses a point system to allow private and public building projects to earn credits for green building practices.  Depending on the number of points, buildings can receive a rating level of Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. 

 

USGBC’s new pilot program provides credits for projects that use wood verified to be from legal sources by any of the following organizations: Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the European-based Programmé for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).  This is in addition to the existing credit for wood products certified by FSC as having been obtained from responsibly managed sources. 

 

A goal of the program is to help reduce unregulated logging, which is a problem in the host of countries that lack rigorous environmental enforcement mechanisms and best management practices, such as exist in the United States. 

 

Internationally, a 14-story luxury apartment block in Norway is the tallest cross-laminated timber building. However, two new buildings under construction will far surpass it: an 18-story dormitory at the University of British Columbia and the 21-story Haut building in Amsterdam. Other such buildings include the Oakwood Tower and an apartment block in London, Trätoppen tower in Stockholm, the Arbora project in Montreal, and the Forte building in Melbourne.

 

Although the production and use of cross-laminated timbers is relatively well established in Europe, there are only two manufacturers in the U.S. certified to produce APA/ANSI compliant cross-laminated timber products. The first is a firm in Oregon and the newest is currently based in Montana, but considering manufacturing sites in Montana, Idaho, Washington, or a state in the Southeast. These manufacturers are already under contract or in design conversations for more than a dozen projects.

 

Although U.S. and Canadian building codes do not yet explicitly recognize cross-laminated timbers, their use may still be allowed under code provisions for “alternate methods” of construction. Additionally, in the 2015, the International Building Code (IBC) approved changes that will streamline the acceptance of buildings that incorporate cross-laminated timber products that comply with the IBC standard. In addition, cross-laminated timber walls and floors may be permitted in all types of combustible construction, including Type IV buildings under the IBC standard. 

 

Interest from the construction industry as well as government support for the use of structural wood products, such as cross-laminated timbers, will almost certainly continue as part of the search for building materials that are sustainable but do not sacrifice building integrity.  Research and testing of southern yellow pine and yellow poplar as structural building materials is ongoing and yielding positive results.

 

Richard W. Goeken (rwgoeken@smithcurrie.com) is a partner and Kathleen Y. Hsu (khsu@smithcurrie.com) an associate, in Smith Currie’s Washington, D.C. office. Smith Currie has decades-long relationships within the forest products industry, including with companies that manufacture structural wood products, as well as extensive ties throughout the construction industry.

*This article initially ran in the November/December issue of Forest Landowner, the official publication of the Forest Landowners Association.

 

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