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(USA) Scientists Back Mass Timber for New Building Codes

16 April 2024

Mass timber can help solve the housing shortage, yet the building material is not widely adopted because old building codes treat it like traditional lumber. The 2021 International Building Code (IBC) addressed this issue, significantly updating mass timber allowances such as increasing height limits. But mass timber use is still broadly limited because state and local building codes usually don’t update automatically. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could speed the adoption of mass timber through grants that incentivize state and local governments to adopt the latest IBC codes. 

Mass Timber Can Help With Housing Abundance And The Climate Transition. 

Compared to concrete and steel, mass timber buildings are faster to build (therefore often cheaper), just as safe in fires, and create fewer CO2 emissions. Single- and multi-family housing using mass timber components could help with the 7.3 million gap of affordable homes.

Broader adoption could meaningfully increase productivity and thereby reduce construction costs. Constructing the superstructure for a 25-story mass timber building in Milwaukee completed in 2022 took about half as long compared to concrete. Developers have reported cost savings of up to 35% through lower time and labor costs. Mass timber isn’t only for small projects: Walmart is building a new 2.4-million-square-foot office campus from mass timber. 

Most States Are On Older Building Codes That Inhibit Use Of Mass Timber.

Use of mass timber is growing. But building codes, often slow to catch up with the latest research, have limited the impact so far. Only in 2021 did amendments to the IBC enable the construction of mass timber buildings taller than six stories Building taller increases the cost savings from building faster. 

State and local government adoption of building codes lags further. By 2023, only 20 states had adopted IBC 2021. Eventually builders might lobby governments to catch up, but for now there’s little reason for many builders to consider mass timber when it’s so restricted.

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