Global tall timber project update
A Canadian who recently completed his Master’s degree in Switzerland and now works for a mass timber company in British Columbia. Nicholas provides insight into current market conditions and optimised solutions for innovative design scenarios.
An Update on The State of Modern Multi-Story Timber Construction
Over the past months we have seen an explosion in the number of tall wood buildings around the world. Since the last tally of tall wood projects we have seen at least six more projects completed and learned of a large number of planned tall wood buildings. The sheer number of projects on the books is already staggering. It is clear that the engineering behind these projects is sound and can be achieved in a variety of ways as we see many teams and systems being used around the world. The remaining boundaries to cross will involve wood products in mid-rise applications becoming truly cost competitive with concrete and steel alternatives. Accompanied by this a few sticky public perceptions remain to be dispelled.
When considering cost competitiveness of modern timber structures there are a number of different factors to be accounted for. During initial pricing estimates many teams only take material costs into account. In this regard timber generally costs more than comparable building products in mass volumes, and it is also subject to high fluctuations on international markets. However one of the key benefits of these modern timber buildings is the use of prefabrication involving computer aided design (CAD) and computer aided manufacturing (CAM). These processes when used in the right arrangement can greatly reduce construction labour costs and save substantial amounts of time and money on site. The time saving further compounds to allow and earlier move in date for the project which can easily see the payback period on a specific project jump the line between feasible and dead in the water. These savings are still difficult for estimators to realise with certainty. With the plethora of projects being developed more reliable costing data will come with them, paving the way for increased financial understanding.
One notable outlier on the bar chart of tall wood buildings around the world is the United Kingdom. The UK has a forestry industry worth roughly $13 billion AUS, which is approximately half of Australia’s $22 billion forestry industry. Yet we see a substantial amount tall wood projects, (and even more under 5 stories) happening throughout the UK. I would like to think that three main components have combined to allow these conditions. Firstly, regulations in the UK are flexible enough to enable many of these projects without getting caught up in bureaucratic webs. Secondly, the UK is geographically close to a large market for both heavy timber wood products and the expertise to refine and further develop these products. Finally, and possibly most important of all is their systems that they have developed for simple well-planned designs. When you start to look at a large number of tall wood buildings around the world many of them try a combination of new advanced systems. Whereas these construction systems typically used in the UK stick to their own system of what they know works. Typically these buildings are heavy in the use of CLT, as well as using repetitive connector systems. Many mainland Eurocentric engineers would call these systems inefficient. However they seem to be working in terms of speed of production and ease of design allowing more tall wood structures in the UK compared to anywhere else in the world, which is only made more surprising by their small forestry industry.
This could just be a statistical anomaly, however I believe it is group of dedicated professionals who have truly found a system that works for them in which they understand. This knowledge has already made its first set of leaps to Australia and soon we will see more trials, in a similar construction fashion, developing around the globe. This progress is not only pushed by architects and engineers with passion and design skills, but also by a set of developers who are willing to push the envelope to offer the best solutions they can deliver to the built environment.