Mass Timber Construction: 12 Things (2024) You Need to Know

Mass timber construction is an emerging building type.

While it’s an investment for the buyer, mass timber construction offers numerous competitive advantages and long-term benefits for the homeowner.

If you’re curious about whether this would be a good option for you, keep reading.

1. What is mass timber construction?

Mass timber construction is built using a category of engineered wood products typically made of large, solid wood panels, columns, or beams often manufactured off-site for load-bearing walls, floors, and roof construction.

While it’s engineered for high-strength ratings, like concrete and steel, mass timber is significantly lighter weight.

2. What is the difference between mass timber and heavy timber?

Heavy timber is specifically associated with Type IV construction.

This type of construction is also known as “mill” construction.

To qualify for this type, all wooden members must have a minimum nominal dimension of 8 inches.

Here are some other important features of heavy timber construction.

bullet2-hour exterior walls

bullet1-hour structural frame

bulletHeavy timber floors, ceiling, and roof assemblies

In essence, heavy timber is a traditional construction method that uses heavy-sawn or glue-laminated beams to create a framing system.

On the other hand, mass timber refers to large wood projects that are typically panelized and engineered.

Mass timber includes specific engineered materials like nail-laminated timber (NLT) and CLT.

We’ll talk more about CLT below.

3. What is the difference between CLT and mass timber?

Mass timber is an umbrella term that involves specific engineered materials like NLT and CLT.

CLT is a mass timber product that stands for cross-laminated timber.

It’s a large-scale, prefabricated, solid, engineered wood panel.

Although it’s lightweight, these panels are very strong.

Some of its characteristics are superior acoustics, fire resistance ratings, and seismic and thermal performance.

CLT is also quick and easy to install while generating almost no onsite waste.

When the wood is properly sourced from an FSC-certified forest, CLT reduces environmental impact compared to other materials.

cross-laminated timber

4. What are the different types of mass timber?

As noted above, CLT is just one type of mass timber.

Here are other options when it comes to this method of construction.

bulletGlue-laminated timber (glulam) – uses water-resistant adhesive that joins dimensional lumber oriented in the same direction; often used for beams and columns

bulletCross-laminated timber (CLT) – wood-joined with adhesive at perpendicular angles for dimensional stability; often used for floors, walls, roofing

bulletNail-laminated timber (NLT) – made of dimensional lumber boards (2x4s) that are mechanically fastened together with nails or screws; often used for decking, flooring, roofing, and walls

bulletMass plywood panel (MPP) – brand-new mass timber product that’s a large-scale structural panel made from wood veneers

bulletDowel-laminated timber (DLT) – made up of softwood boards that fit together and are held side-by-side with dowels inserted into pre-drilled holes; best for flooring and roofing

You likely hear about CLT the most because studies have found that it performs slightly better than other options as the laminates are cross-oriented in a panel.

CLT also has less susceptibility to small holes and cracks.

cross laminated timber
Cross-Laminated Timber

5. Is mass timber cheaper than steel?

Yes, mass timber is cheaper than both steel and concrete.

This comes down to a couple of core factors including materials and labor.

bulletMaterial cost

The cost of materials is the largest portion of a construction budget (especially for commercial properties).

Mass timber construction cuts costs dramatically because of its availability.

On top of that, mass timber requires fewer materials and needs smaller foundations.

According to one source, cross-laminated timber (CLT) costs an average of $50 per square foot.

This is $14 per square foot less than a traditional concrete and steel building.

What does that look like in savings for a commercial building?

If the building is 40,000 square feet, then you’re saving half a million ($560,000) in materials alone.

Additionally, because wood is so much lighter than concrete and steel, you also save considerably on the foundation.

You don’t need as thick of a foundation or as much concrete and rebar to support a wood building as you do a concrete or steel building.

Depending on your climate, it’s also possible to save on the foundation depth.

You want to make sure frost isn’t able to penetrate whatever you build.

bulletLabor cost

When it comes to labor, there are two significant benefits of mass timber construction.

These benefits include smaller crews and faster construction time.

While traditional buildings must be constructed on-site (which requires more time and larger crews), mass timber buildings are prefabricated.

You’ll receive all the pieces already cut, which means they’ll fit together quickly and easily.

With this puzzle piece-like structure, you won’t need as many people helping.

Employing fewer workers for less time will ultimately save you money on installation.

6. What are the benefits?

As noted above, mass timber construction has numerous value-added benefits.

Additionally, because there’s been such a boom in building with rapid urbanization, new forms of green building construction are necessary.

Here’s why you might consider mass timber construction when you’re building on your land.

bulletThe columns, beams, and panels weigh less than concrete and steel materials (for example Dalston Works weighs 1/5th of a concrete building of the same size)

bulletThe reduced weight lowers shipping costs as well as the workforce required to install them

bulletThe prefabricated panels are delivered directly to job sites which means that construction time is reduced by approximately 25 percent

bulletThe wood has a biophilic effect on people, which increases occupant health and wellness

bulletThe timber stores carbon in its structure for the life of the building (for example: an 18-story mass timber building has a negative carbon imprint equal to taking 2,350 cars off the road annually)

bulletThe practices in modern forestry ensure there’s a continuous cycle of growing, harvesting, and replanting timber; all lumber that is sourced for mass timber construction is sustainably harvested using these best practices

  1. For example, alternating trees are cut during harvest to ensure that the remaining trees can grow twice as tall and not compete for natural resources
  2. Additionally, when timber is harvested, two saplings are replanted for every tree harvested; thus, there will always be future forest growth and resources

bulletThe panels created from mass timber are solid and load-bearing because they are bound together for extra strength and stability

bulletThe columns, beams, and panels are fire tested and rated to ensure they meet building code requirements

bulletThis type of construction is an eco-conscious solution to traditional-multistory concrete or steel apartment

7. What are the advantages of using this construction type for commercial spaces?

People are often worried about mass timber construction.

Because it’s less expensive than steel and concrete, they automatically assume that it’s cheap and low-quality.

However, businesses around the country are gravitating toward this type of construction because of its benefits.

Here’s a quick overview of the advantages:

bulletStrong and durable building materials

It’s often shocking to people when they learn that cross-laminated timber is stronger than steel.

It’s five times more insulative than concrete and 350 times more insulative than steel.

Its lightweight nature means the frame supports less mass, which results in increased structural strength.

bulletFewer load-bearing walls

When there’s stronger support, you can use fewer load-bearing walls in the interior.

This is great for commercial buildings because you can create huge open floor plans and accommodate more occupants, workspaces, etc.

bulletFire resistance

Once again, it’s surprising but CLT planks are thick, which makes them fire-resistant.

They’re just as fireproof as steel beams.

bulletEnvironmentally friendly

As long as mass timber is harvested responsibly, it’s an environmentally friendly and renewable resource.

You can see more about how this is an eco-friendly resource below.

bulletAesthetically pleasing

When a material is functional, there’s always a concern that it’ll be ugly.

However, CLT offers a pleasing aesthetic.

Beautiful wooden rafters and walls create a warm, inviting atmosphere for customers, employees, and building occupants.

This is an all-around great option!

8. Is mass timber construction fire-resistant?

Yes, mass timber is fire-resistant.

In a test, a 5-ply cross-laminated timber (CLT) panel wall was subjected to temperatures exceeding 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

The wall lasted 3 hours and 6 minutes, which was an hour and six minutes longer than the 2-hours rating that the building code requires.

Why is this material so fire-resistant?

In these scenarios, exposed mass timber chars on the outside.

The char forms an insulating layer that protects the interior wood from damage.

Mass timber also has the ability to have a nearly damage-free performance during a contents-fire burnout even if it’s protected with gypsum wall board.

9. Is mass timber construction eco-friendly?

You bet.

Mass timber is an eco-friendly and sustainable option if you’re hoping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

When you replace steel with mass timber, you reduce carbon dioxide emissions between 15 and 20 percent.

Some estimates state that using cross-laminated timber and other emerging wood technologies in buildings that are 7 to 15 stories tall could have the same emissions impact as removing more than 2 million cars off the road for one year.

This is a solution that could have a huge impact on climate health moving forward.

Studies have also shown that building with wood produces fewer greenhouse emissions than building with other materials.

10. Is this construction system soundproof?

Definitely not!

In general, lower-frequency sounds transfer more easily through walls and more mass means better noise control.

Mass timber is lighter weight than concrete and steel.

This means you’re more likely to hear noise through a poorly designed mass timber building.

The keyword there is poorly designed.

As long as it’s designed properly, these buildings can be as quiet as their steel and concrete competition.

So, what type of design features do they need to increase their insulation from sound?

One example is a dropped ceiling below the wood structures or raised floor system to achieve satisfactory sound separation of floors and ceilings.

If you want to avoid sound transmission issues with a mass timber structure, there are some key acoustic decisions you should make early in the design process.

If you don’t address them early, then you’ll have to take the walls, ceilings, and floors down to incorporate soundproofing solutions. 

11. How does mass timber hold up against seismic activity?

Compared to concrete buildings, CLT structures fare exceptionally well due to the material’s flexibility and lightweight qualities.

Although concrete does well in compression, it doesn’t do well in tension.

Conversely, steel does well in tension but not compression.

While lightweight materials don’t sound like they’d be an advantage in an earthquake, higher-mass buildings create greater seismic force.

Additionally, timber buildings are often easier to repair because they have a greater allowance for movement during an earthquake.

12. Why is mass timber growing in popularity?

Although this construction method has been used across Europe for more than two decades, mass timber didn’t reach North America until 2012.

Now, it’s all the rage due to structural ability, sustainability, and potential negative carbon impact.

In 2015, the International Building Code (IBC) first recognized CLT.

This was a big deal because it’s the institution that provides minimum requirements for new and existing buildings.

It also serves as the standard of building safety across the US.

There are new building code changes upcoming, and mass timber buildings are expected to be a preference for commercial builders.

The International Code Council combined and updated the codes regarding heavy timber and mass timber recently.

These regulations allow for mass timber to span greater distances in length and height (now up to 18 stories).

In the US, mass timber construction is most often used for small offices and apartment buildings.

Final Thoughts

If you’re currently working on a commercial building project, check out mass timber construction.

It’s an up-and-coming construction method that’s gaining a lot of traction.

Not only is it sturdier and less expensive, but you can feel confident about what you’re doing for the environment.

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Erika Gokce Capital

Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.


2 thoughts on “Mass Timber Construction: 12 Things (2024) You Need to Know”

  1. Hi Erika,
    I am an architect in San Francisco Metropolitan area. We are contemplatingh of going in mass timber direction for a small two story office building.
    Is $50/- per sf a current number for CLT floor deck? What thickness how many layers and which geographic location you have assumed?

    • Oh gosh, I’m afraid I can’t quote specific prices for a particular location, for my research I just got an average price across the country. However, I’m sure there are suppliers in your area who can give you quotes. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help!


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