Mass timber, the emerging new material in sustainable building, could be part of the climate change solution and the cornerstone of Ontario’s economic and environmental future. But can its supply keep up with the demand? Researchers at the Daniels Faculty’s Mass Timber Institute (MTI) at the University of Toronto are about to find out.
The research, conducted by Vanessa Nhan, a Master of Forest Conservation student, with support from Glen Foley, Forest Modeling Specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and MTI’s project manager Emmett Snyder, will focus on recalculating existing wood volume on two Crown Forest management units to determine what wood, if any, is leftover after wood supply commitments and shareholder allocations, and if it can be used for a new and sustainable mass timber industry in Ontario.
MTI aims to help Canada become an international leader in tall wood buildings and advanced wood products with its leading-edge research and development, coupled with specialized teaching and training for the next generation of architects, builders, foresters, and designers.
Developers and architects worldwide are rallying for mass timber as the eco-friendly building material of choice for good reason: it’s durable, modular, easier to assemble, fire resistant and aesthetically pleasing. The engineered-wood products — large structural panels, beams and posts — are made from dimensional lumber, veneer or wooden strands, and glued or nailed together in layers, with the wood grain arranged perpendicular for added strength.
“Mass timber is hailed as an advanced building material, in many ways superior to traditional building materials like concrete and steel. Its products can also be preassembled at a factory and then easily shipped to a building site, where they can be assembled like a Lego kit, allowing builders to be more efficient with their resources,” says Snyder.
Perhaps the most exciting benefit is the age-old material coming into its own as a significant part of a climate change solution due to its renewable nature and potential negative carbon impact, he explains. It’s refreshing news considering the manufacturing of concrete and steel, the typical code-approved choice for tall buildings, accounts for about 15 percent of the world’s carbon emissions each year.
“There has been a lot of conversation around embodied carbon emissions in the supply chain and how both concrete and steel are more energy-intensive to produce and emit massive amounts of carbon. Mass timber is commonly seen as a viable, greener alternative to that,” says Snyder.
“We’re advocates for a hybrid approach where sometimes it makes sense to produce a foundation from concrete. But it’s really about sustainable development and combating climate change and the housing affordability crisis—all from this building material.”
Mass timber’s Canadian renaissance
Across Canada, mass timber is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, creating a world of design possibilities for large low-rise and mid-rise buildings, meeting consumer demand for green building materials, and generating future investment opportunities in the global construction sector, which is expected to reach $16.6 trillion by 2025. In 2017, the Canadian government pledged $39.8 million through a program called Green Construction Through Wood to support the use of timber in non-traditional construction projects, such as tall buildings, low-rise commercial buildings, and bridges.
The timber industry in Canada isn’t without major barriers. Most provinces must abide by the maximum height for most wood buildings allowed by building codes in Canada, which is six storeys. The National Building Code of Canada is slated to be updated this year, permitting wood builds of up to 12 stories, taking into consideration its strength and fire resistance ratings. But it’s up to the provinces and territories themselves to rework these updates into their own building regulations. British Columbia and Quebec, through alternative approval processes, have already led the way for the construction of tall timber buildings prior to these code changes. Ontario is waiting to harmonize its building code with the national code in order to ramp up its game.
Further proof of Ontario’s mass timber’s potential is a new mass timber facility in St. Thomas, run by Canada’s latest Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) manufacturer, Element5. The 137,000-square-foot, $50-million plant produced its first panel in December 2020 and is now fully operational. It houses a technologically advanced, fully automated CLT and glulam production line, and can produce up to 45,000 cubic metres of CLT and glulam annually.
While this sounds promising for Ontario, Nhan’s work will evaluate if the province can sustainably grow the forest sector at the same time mass timber production is increasing, while considering the four distinct areas of sustainability: human, social, economic, and environmental. Supporting her analysis is Remsoft’s Woodstock Optimization Studio — a prescriptive analytics and optimization modeling platform for forest management planning.
Nhan explains Woodstock will be used to build timber harvest scheduling models for different scenarios on two Crown Forest management units in central Ontario, similar to long-term management direction (LTMD) models used in forest planning.
On Ontario Crown lands, the available harvest volume (calculated with optimization modeling during LTMD) is often much higher than the actual harvest amount. This ‘extra wood,’ particularly underutilized tree species and small diameter fibre, could potentially be used for mass timber.
The models will help determine how much sustainable and unallocated wood, if any, exists on those specific units once commitments to mills and shareholders have been met.
Assessing future opportunities
Once the models confirm if any wood can be repurposed, researchers can also answer some key questions such as what tree species are available, what stands are these species coming from (i.e., mixed wood, conifer, spruce pine fir, or cedar), and how much of that wood can be used for mass timber, keeping in mind opportunities for First Nations communities? How will mass timber affect overall wood costs compared to the cost of pulp and softwood lumber in the region?
“There are a lot of moving parts which can get quite complex. Woodstock is great because it gives us the flexibility to implement these different scenarios and answer our big questions,” says Nhan.
“With all of that information, we’ll have a pretty good idea if this wood system is suitable for mass timber applications and if it can provide opportunities for those regional economies,” adds Snyder.
Nhan and Snyder are both optimistic about the possibilities of mass timber in Ontario. Their findings will help develop models for other forest management units in Ontario to determine where and how a new mass timber value chain might be optimized.
“This is going to be a big and complicated modeling project,” says Snyder. “Without Woodstock, we would have to make some big assumptions ourselves, some which would be less realistic.”
- This work was supported by Remsoft’s Educational Partners Program, which aids academic research and teaching initiatives that increase understanding and improve practices in sustainable forest, land, and asset management.
- Find out more about the Educational Partners Program, and how to become a member.