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Mass Timber in the United States

Mass Timber in the United States

Dennis Mordan is the Vice President and Principal at O’Donnell & Naccarato where he oversees multiple mass timber projects.  Mordan has been in the AEC industry for 34-years, and has worked structural design for a variety of project types including institutional, residential, higher education, and healthcare.  Four years ago in 2019, Mordan was first introduced to Mass Timber, and quickly noticed it as an emerging and unique opportunity for change in the construction market.  After meeting with clients on the architecture and design ends who saw the same potential, Mordan and O’Donnell & Naccarato soon began looking for opportunities to “jump in and start using Mass Timber.”  According to Mordan, this process began with gathering more information about Mass Timber projects and material suppliers.  In this pursuit, Mordan says that touring projects and facilities in Canada was an invaluable resource.  Because Canada has adopted more Mass Timber-friendly building codes, Mordan and the group were able to tour a variety of projects that were currently under construction, which gave the group a better understanding of the “real world opportunities” to deploy Mass Timber.  

Armed with a better understanding of how Mass Timber projects operate, Mordan and his team returned home to look for opportunities to deploy this new way of thinking.  This meant both getting involved in Mass Timber projects and engaging in education to increase client and industry understanding of Mass Timber.  A few years ago, Mordan and his team developed a seminar for architects and contractors called Mass Timber 101 that is meant to introduce Mass Timber as a material as well as some of its idiosyncrasies within the construction industry.  Mordan and his team have also worked with groups like the Wood Council to “garner some more education and excitement on [Mass Timber].”  These efforts to use Mass timber and educate the industry about it are predicated on Mordan’s belief that Mass Timber has massive benefits from a sustainability perspective.

According to Mordan, sustainability is reliably the aspect of Mass Timber that can “get the foot in the door.”  The carbon sequestration of the timber as well as its renewability means that it has the potential to immediately help projects meet sustainability goals.  Compared to traditional building materials, Mass Timber allows projects to incorporate a higher level of sustainability.  Mordan believes that, while the sustainability aspects of Mass Timber are at the forefront when trying to convince shareholders to adopt it on projects, the material has incredible benefits towards the aesthetic design of spaces as well as its ease of constructability.  Because Mass Timber products are prefabricated, this increases the construction efficiency of projects, which in turn leads to less money spent on things like labor and fuel.  Mordan is also adamant that Mass Timber introduces important and unique aesthetic qualities that transform spaces and connect them with nature through biophilic design.  As biophilic design becomes more popular, particularly within urban spaces, Mass Timber represents a tremendous opportunity to incorporate design with sustainability goals and efficient construction methods.  

To put these opportunities with Mass Timber into perspective, Mordan uses two of their projects with Equus Capital Partners–Ellis Preserve and 675 E. Swedesford Rd.–as examples.  These two projects are five-story Mass Timber office buildings.   According to Mordan, for every 400 square feet of these projects that are built, it represents the equivalent of taking one car off the road per year in terms of emissions.  For a project like Ellis Preserve, which was 100,000 square feet, this reduction in emissions has a significant impact on the project’s design.  Furthermore, this impact on sustainability has a significant impact on shareholder’s sustainability goals, which Mordan believes makes it an even more attractive option.  Swathmore College, for example, has laid out plans to create a zero carbon campus in the future.  Mordan and his team helped the college work towards these goals incorporating Mass Timber into the design of several of their campus buildings.  

Despite the benefits of Mass Timber, its wider usage in the United States lags behind that of other countries like Canada.  A major reason for this comes from the difference in access to Mass Timber products.  With a robust industry producing timber materials, companies have an easier time sourcing the necessary Mass timber products to complete a project.  Outside of the Pacific Northwest, there are little of the necessary natural resources and industries needed to produce mass timber products.  As such, projects in the United States using mass timber have to rely on accurate and sustainable sourcing of materials to avoid potential issues.  Outside of access to materials, Mordan believes that the primary thing holding mass timber back from wider adoption in the United States is that it is unknown.  

Architects and contractors who are not familiar with mass timber are “reluctant to use unfamiliar materials…relying on and trusting their experiences.”  With this unfamiliarity and hesitancy comes higher estimates.  However, as Mordan and his team, as well as many other professionals, continue to educate the AEC industry about mass timber, this unfamiliarity and hesitancy will continue to abate.  As the uncertainties with sourcing and use are assuaged by its continued wider adoption, Mordan believes that the number of projects using mass timber in the United States will continue to increase.  

This article is part one in a two part series covering mass timber in the United States.  Part two will appear in our September 2023 issue.