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The Comeback of Wood as a Building Material

The Comeback of Wood as a Building Material

Reaching for the Skies with Timber

Imagine a world where buildings could sway and bend like trees in the wind, yet stand strong and tall against the mightiest of earthquakes. A world where the air you breathe inside your office or home is fresher, cleaner, and filled with the comforting aroma of freshly cut timber. This may sound like a utopian dream, but my friends, the future of construction is here, and it’s made of wood.

For centuries, we’ve relied on wood as our primary building material, from the humble log cabins of our ancestors to the grand cathedrals of Europe. But as the world progressed, concrete and steel slowly took over, relegating wood to a mere afterthought. Or so we thought.

Today, a remarkable renaissance is underway, and wood is reclaiming its rightful place as a preferred choice for modern construction. Thanks to the tireless efforts of researchers and engineers like Chris Pantelides at the University of Utah, the humble tree is once again reaching for the skies, challenging the dominance of concrete and steel.

Engineered for the Future

Pantelides, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, has spent the last seven years studying and developing a game-changing technology called mass timber. This category of engineered wood products is set to revolutionize the construction industry, offering a sustainable, renewable, and structurally superior alternative to traditional building materials.

“What you’re looking at here is the future,” Pantelides says, holding up a block of composite wood about 12 inches long and 10 inches wide. This deceptively simple piece of lumber is the result of meticulous research and experimentation, a testament to the remarkable potential of wood.

Mass timber, as Pantelides explains, is defined by its use of columns, beams, and boards made of multiple wood layers or pieces tightly laminated or bound together. The two main types he works with are mass plywood panel and mass ply lam, both of which boast impressive structural and environmental benefits.

Stronger Than Steel, Lighter Than Concrete

One of the key advantages of mass timber is its sheer strength. “The timber that we’re talking about is very strong,” Pantelides says. “It can take the place of steel or concrete in many building frames, but it’s much lighter.” In fact, a mass timber building can be as much as a quarter the weight of a concrete structure, requiring a much smaller foundation.

But the benefits don’t end there. Mass timber is also effectively fireproof, resistant to moisture damage, and highly durable. Thanks to sustainable forestry techniques, it’s a renewable resource that sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Pantelides notes that it takes only seven seconds for European forests to grow enough timber required for a three-bedroom apartment, and Canada alone has enough timber to house a billion people in perpetuity.

Material Strength Weight Sustainability
Mass Timber Comparable to steel 1/4 the weight of concrete Renewable, sequesters carbon
Concrete High compressive strength Heavier than mass timber Not renewable, high carbon footprint
Steel High tensile strength Heavier than mass timber Not renewable, high carbon footprint

Earthquake-Resistant Wonders

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of mass timber is its ability to withstand the devastating forces of nature. Pantelides and his team have been experimenting with mass timber versions of earthquake-resistant architectural elements, including the Timber Buckling Restrained Brace (T-BRB).

In traditional construction, non-timber Buckling Restrained Braces (BRBs) absorb the seismic force of an earthquake, redirecting it away from the building frame and into a steel core, which is usually encased in a concrete-filled steel tube. This approach means that only the braces sustain major damage, while the rest of the building remains intact.

Pantelides has taken this concept and adapted it for mass timber frames, creating a BRB that uses a strip of steel for the core but is made entirely of engineered wood. This T-BRB is designed to be just as effective at protecting buildings during earthquakes, but with the added benefits of mass timber’s strength, lightness, and sustainability.

To test the T-BRB’s performance, Pantelides and his team have built elaborate setups in the college’s labs, complete with a hulking rectangular metal tower that simulates the effects of seismic activity. By subjecting the T-BRB and timber frames to the shaking equivalent of a magnitude 7 earthquake, they can gather invaluable data on how the different elements respond and shift under immense pressure.

Reaching New Heights with Mass Timber

This research is crucial in helping to accelerate the use of mass timber, enabling it to become tougher and taller. While mass timber construction has been in use in Europe for several decades, the United States has been slower to adopt it, in part due to strict building codes that were focused on steel and concrete.

But now, thanks to recent changes in these codes and the work of pioneers like Pantelides, mass timber is expected to proliferate even in disaster-prone areas. The most recent version of the International Building Code, the central set of building regulations in the US, has included a construction type for buildings up to 18 stories. And a record-setting 25-story-tall hybrid mass timber and concrete building has already been built in Wisconsin, with a five-story building under construction in Draper, Utah.

“The whole world’s waking up,” Pantelides says excitedly. “People are going to look back and say, ‘Hey, why didn’t we build that with mass timber?’ I think in the next 20 years, there won’t be many buildings less than 12 stories or maybe even 18 stories built with steel and concrete. It just won’t be feasible anymore.”

A Greener Future, One Tree at a Time

The comeback of wood as a building material is not just about engineering feats and structural innovations; it’s also about the environment. Buildings are heavy polluters, accounting for about 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the construction phase alone represents 10% of this figure.

While making cement and steel greener is a priority, wood construction offers a more immediate and impactful solution. In fact, wood is the only truly renewable building material, and it can actually generate a positive environmental impact.

Every ton of timber grown sequesters 18 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the sustainable forestry techniques used today ensure that our forests are replenished faster than they’re harvested. Compared to the heavy carbon footprint of concrete and steel production, the environmental benefits of wood construction are undeniable.

Embracing the Natural Wonders of Wood

But the comeback of wood as a building material isn’t just about its structural and environmental advantages; it’s also about the human experience. People simply love to be in buildings that have lots of exposed wood, as Pantelides points out. The sense of connection to nature, the biophilic design, creates healthier living and working environments.

“People are going to look back and say, ‘Hey, why didn’t we build that with mass timber?'” Pantelides muses. And as more and more people discover the wonders of wood, the future of construction may very well be found in the embrace of our oldest building material.

So, if you’re in the market for a new home or office, I encourage you to explore the possibilities of timber construction. Who knows, your next building might just be a swaying, earthquake-resistant, carbon-sequestering marvel of wood – a testament to the enduring power of nature’s gift to us.

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