At the beginning of 2020, before the public health and economic consequences of a global health crisis were felt and before construction sites were temporarily shut down, the United States was already facing a growing shortage of affordable rental housing units. In 2018, there were 6 million more cost-burdened renters than in 2001, with the majority of the lowest-income renters spending more than half of their income on rent.
By one Freddie Mac study, the domestic supply would need to create 2.5 million housing units to meet the nation's long-term demand. Progressively restrictive building and energy codes, unsustainable and increasingly expensive material resources, and high field labor costs — not to mention the myriad complexities of construction activities on jobsites — have all challenged housing production.
If the housing supply is to meet demand, urban density trends will need to continue, and the construction industry will need to innovate how it can deliver high-quality multifamily buildings more efficiently. Mass timber — a construction technology that has been used for decades in Europe and more recently developed a foothold in North America — promises such a disruption.
Mass timber is a category of wood structural components that rely on their size and advanced adhesives for inherent structural and fire-resistive properties. Glulam columns and beams are examples of mass timber, as are larger structural slab formats such as cross-laminated timber (CLT).
Mass timber components are prefabricated offsite in factories, often precisely pre-cut to the dimensional specifications of a project, and shipped to job sites ready to be craned into place and installed by small crews. The wood components are relatively lightweight (less than a quarter the weight of concrete), dimensionally stable and easy to handle. And because they are comprised almost entirely of renewable wood, mass timber structural components are both environmentally sustainable and valued for their beauty.
Occupants benefit, too. Exposure to wood is linked to many positive health benefits for residential inhabitants; buildings that use wood to incorporate natural design elements offer benefits that can improve a building's long-term return on investment (ROI).
Savvy investors and owners are beginning to harness these benefits to develop buildings that create more value for their residents and communities.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, at 2 p.m. ET, NAHB will host a webinar, Will Tomorrow’s Cities Be Timber? Exploring Midrise Mass Timber Housing, led by Katerra, that gives an overview of design and construction considerations for mid-rise mass timber housing. Register now to reserve your seat.