City of the Future: A Case for Mass Timber Construction
Our civilization is in the midst of both housing and environmental crises. According to the United Nations, 68% of the world population will be living in urban areas by 2050. The implications of this in terms of climate change are considerable based on the fact that urban areas rely greatly on use of concrete and steel. In terms of the environmental footprint, the manufacturing of cement is responsible for approximately 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions; a figure that will increase if urban construction trends continue to rise. At the same time, the construction industry has faced stagnant productivity where the industry’s productivity has only increased 1% annually for the last 20 years. This presents further challenges when meeting the growing demand for buildings and infrastructure.
The AEC Industry needs to rethink current building practices and find alternatives that will help address the challenges of a growing population and climate concerns. In response to this, wood construction has seen a resurgence during the last decade. The use of wood is not new; it has been the preferred building material for millennia. Timber is nature’s own building material—it’s affordable, abundant, and has outstanding structural and environmental performance. Engineered wood products or EWP was developed to utilize wood’s inherent variability as a natural material and to utilize the material more efficiently while creating new, high value-added products. These highly engineered products can overcome many of the issues associated with traditional timber frames and have put wood construction back in the spotlight.
Mass timber is a type of EWP that has been in use in Europe for more than two decades and, more recently, has been sprouting up in cities across North America, South America, and Asia. Mass timber elements are large scale structural panels, columns, and beams that are glued or nailed together in layers and can be used in diverse applications. Mass timber could also play a significant role in the fight against climate change. If we build with timber, as opposed to concrete or steel projects with large environmental footprints, we can save between 14 -31% of global CO2 emissions. If adopted at a global scale, these reductions can make a vital difference and help nations reach the CO2 reduction targets highlighted in the Paris Agreement.
But how can a process that requires us to cut down trees be more environmentally friendly? The key is the source. Wood is inherently sustainable. It is a natural, renewable resource that takes very little energy to manufacture when compared to the production of other traditional building materials. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees store CO2 from the air. When trees from sustainably managed forests are cut, the carbon remains stored in its fibers instead of being released into the atmosphere. Therefore, replacing carbon emitting materials with sustainably produced wood products can help move society toward a low carbon future. For example, the production of one ton of cement emits nearly one ton of CO2 back into the atmosphere. Moreover, when used in buildings, wood offers unsurpassed benefits to the health and well-being for those involved in the construction and those that live and work inside these buildings.
As our civilization reassesses its relationship with the planet, from one of exploitation to one of conservation, we must transition away from materials that pollute to materials that prioritize the long-term health of our environment. By producing prefabricated mass timber buildings that act as carbon sinks, we can help provide housing and infrastructure for the growing population while mitigating our impact on climate change.
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