How Wood is Making a Comeback in Construction

23 April 2024

Utah civil engineers show how “mass timber” construction of earthquake-proof buildings pave the way for wood to replace steel and concrete.

We’ve been using wood to build things for a very long time. According to the recently discovered remains of a half-a-million-year-old wooden structure in Africa, we’ve been building with wood before we were even fully human. From those early beginnings to the stave churches of Scandinavia to Lincoln’s log cabin, wood as a construction material has been favored for its abundance, its workability and its beauty.

Yet in the past 150 years, as cities and skyscrapers have boomed, wood has been eclipsed by newer materials such as concrete and steel. These materials can support more weight, allowing for bigger buildings, and aren’t as susceptible to fire, earthquake and moisture damage. However, they cost more to produce, are not renewable and exact a heavy carbon footprint; steel and concrete production accounts for more than 10% of global emissions.

But talk to University of Utah engineering professor Chris Pantelides, and he’ll tell you that we shouldn’t accept the dominance of the steel-and-concrete jungle just yet. Thanks to the work of civil engineers like Pantelides, our oldest building material is experiencing a revival—one that can even withstand earthquakes.

Wood represents both the past and the future for building

Sitting in his office at the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he held up a block of composite wood, about 12 inches long and 10 inches wide, and smiled.

“What you’re looking at here is the future,” Pantelides said.

The deceptively simple piece of lumber is an example of “mass timber” technology, a category of “engineered wood product” set to revolutionize the construction industry, which Pantelides has spent the last seven years studying and developing.

On the desk before him, among other pieces of wood and long metal dowels, sat his latest research paper, titled “Design and Cyclic Experiments of a Mass Timber Frame with a Timber Buckling Restrained Brace,” published in the Journal of Structural Engineering. It explores the best ways to build a Buckling Restrained Brace (BRB)—a type of building support that protects against earthquake damage—with mass timber.

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