Efforts to spur the use of mass timber products as a safe and sustainable building material for mid-rise construction projects is already meeting with concerted pushback from the concrete sector.

Many engineering experts contend that recent technological advances have made mass timber products a safe and viable construction material for mid-rise buildings. This development promises to boost the use of timber for multi-storey projects in particular, and provide the construction industry with a sustainable, endlessly renewable building material.

Some are concerned, however, that the promotion of mass timber as a sustainable construction product threatens to cut into the vast market share enjoyed by concrete, which has been the perennial material of choice for large-scale building projects since time immemorial.

In North America, the concrete sector has already fired an opening salvo against the use of cross-laminated timber products with the release of a video that seeks to warn consumers of the potential perils of wooden building materials.

Produced by Build with Strength, a coalition of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA), the video raises concerns about the potential fire hazards created by the use of cross laminated timber and features brief snippets of an interview with Jon Narva of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

“Cross-laminated timber is really a new material, a new process,” said Narva. “The nature of timber alone should give reason for pause; it’s prone to fire, termites, earthquakes, and humidity. At the moment, sufficient testing has not taken place to verify the durability and strength of CLT.

“Last year, Washington State experienced the largest wildfire in state history, during which 175 homes were destroyed and more than a million acres burned. Should such an event happen again, the best bet would be to make sure one’s residence is built with the most resilient material available: concrete.”

Despite Narva’s comments, architects and engineers around the world continue to evince their confidence in the safety and resilience of mass timber products, with developers appear to engage in an ongoing competition against each other to create the world’s tallest wooden building.

Vancouver-based architect Russell Acton believes mass timber could soon become a popular building material for six-to-12-storey buildings.

Acton is the principal of Acton Ostry Architects, the architectural practice responsible for the University of British Columbia’s Brock Commons residence, which at 18 storeys set to be one of the world’s tallest timber structures upon completion in mid-2017.

“I would like wood to become a standard structural material, but when and how it is used will depend on the context of each individual project,” said Acton to the Journal of Commerce.

Acton also points out that timber poses little threat to the dominant position of concrete in the construction, which enjoys an 80 per cent market share for all building materials around the world.

“Concrete is certainly not on its way out. Concrete, and steel, will always be used,” he said.

  • Marc, this is a great conversation to get out there. The NRMCA promo does nothing to help really. This should not be a pissing contest between concrete, steel, timber or any other composite. The rapid transformations in construction methods is caught up in the BIM, Off-site and lean construction movement withe each testifying that they add more value to the process. The reality is that they all lack independent measures and benchmarked assessment of what they claim. Add to this the pressure on poorly funded public authorities to keep up with research into new materials and the standards which should apply to them. We end up with minimum standards, deemed to comply and private certification – look what that is turning up. Its not timber that has the highlight here – look to aluminium panels that an unsuspecting public may imagine was more fire proof than timber. The construction industry is defensive of the status quo and essentially risk adverse. Accountability is the last thing on the minds of an industry that is conditioned for a 12 months warranty period and getting out of here. If the concrete and masonry industry want to claim public interest bragging rights here then I have a few photos to show that may help disabuse them of such claims. In the end a lot of things happen to concrete once it is mixed. I personally like concrete, especially precast and see that it has a core role in construction's transformation to a modern industry, but so has steel. The timber industry does themselves no favours by running the merits of wood via a beauty contest to win the public over. And we need to be mindful of Australia's already $4bn trade deficit in wood. We need a forest strategy in Australia but that's another story.

  • As a state fire marshal, Mr. Narva should spend more time in the field; where in Washington or the rest of the US are homes built out of concrete, save the foundations, of course. CLT is but one building option that happens to be renewable. Steel and concrete are not.

Allegion – 300 x 250 (expire Aug 30 2018)