The global mass timber market has witnessed significant growth over the past decade – in part due to the EU’s ‘Green Deal’ objectives.
According to a new report by Allied Market Research, ‘Mass Timber Construction Market’, the mass timber construction market was valued at $US 857.10 million in 2021 and is expected to reach $1.5 billion by 2031, with skyrocketing demand coinciding with commitments to reduce embodied carbon in new buildings.
Last week, the Queensland Government committed to using mass-timer in the construction of the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Villages in Brisbane, building on the commitments from the Paris 2024 and Milan 2026 Olympics – which are using a substantial amount of timber in the construction of new buildings.
According to a 2022 report by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, Europe is home to 60 of the world’s tallest tall timber structures (eight storeys and above), with the European jurisdictions introducing a range of new initiatives to increase timber in construction:
- In the Netherlands, 32 municipalities and 80 companies in the metropolitan region of Amsterdam have signed a ‘Timber Construction Covenant’, agreeing to use wood as the primary building material in at least 20% of residential buildings by 2025.
- In Finland, the government has set an ambitious 45% target for timber in public construction by 2025.
- In France, public buildings, including those constructed for the 2024 Paris Olympics, have mandated the use of bio-based materials (including timber) – by 2025, 25% of all major construction projects are to use ‘green materials,’ rising to 50% by 2030.
- In Sweden, life cycle embodied-carbon calculations are a precondition for planning approval for all new builders – with limited embodied carbon likely by 2027.
- And on a macro scale, the European Commission is considering an EU-wide requirement to measure construction materials’ life-cycle carbon emissions with a provision for EU member state to create national building plans setting out how they will reduce embodied carbon emissions.
In Australia, the Australian Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s timber incentive program has kick-started interest in mid-rise construction. And at the same time, some state governments and local councils have embraced ‘wood encouragement policies.’
Three major obstacles to greater adoption of mass timber construction at scale
So far, though – and apart from small-scale residential projects, which will not densify cities – progress in greater adoption is subject to a series of starts and stumbles.
“There are many timber plans, but not nearly as many timber-construction sites,” says Mathew Vola, director of sustainable development in the Amsterdam office of Arup.
But even with the Dutch pro-wood covenant, Vola can count the number of large-scale timber projects going up in the Netherlands.
“Everyone wants to do timber, but somewhere along the line the ambition gets lost,” he says. “In our experience, it always concerns the business case.”
In an article published by Architectural Record last weekend, the three major obstacles to greater adoption include:
- Lack of financial incentives to make the shift from concrete and steel.
- Supply bottlenecks – with demand outweighing supply.
- Shortage of education amongst industry players.
In addition, and closely aligned to the need for greater education, is the need for standardised solutions with building codes and standards lagging technical innovation.
This feeds the development of diverse and, in some cases, unnecessarily stringent, regulations, which translate into project costs and sector uncertainty.
Financial Incentives to shift from concrete and steel
While pro-timber regulation has attracted the interest of the environmental, social, and governance investment community, the government needs to support commitments with action. In the Netherlands, the cement and steel industries are exempt from the carbon tax.
“You could argue that this exemption amounts to a subsidy for those industries,” according to Mathew Vola.
According to Mikko Leino, CEO of Helsinki-based Puurakentajat Group, large construction companies have links to, or ownership of, major concrete and steel companies. In a recent webinar hosted by PEFC, Leino said, “Concrete and cement is often integrated into their balance sheets,” without incentives, “it takes a long time to turn that ship around.”
In the UK, there are greater incentives to burn wood than to build with it, according to Andrew Waugh.
Speaking to Architectural Record, the founding director of London-based Waugh Thistleton Architects said, “the use of wood for construction is taxed and unsubsidised, whereas its use for fuel is subsidised and untaxed. Most of the trees that are cut in the UK are burned.”
Supply chain bottlenecks
According to a report by the International Mark Analysis Research and Consulting Group, the European CLT market stood at 1.6 million cubic metres in 2022 and is expected to reach 2.9 million cubic metres by 2028.
In an interview in March 2023, Andrew Waugh said that the number of CLT manufacturers –at 70 worldwide– will increase as demand for mass timber outstrips supply.
A 2021 policy-gap analysis of programs promoting timber construction in Norway, Sweden, and Finland found a widespread expectation among sector experts that increasing demand for timber components will stimulate competition in the market and help smooth out supply-chain inefficiencies and shortfalls.
In Amsterdam, “one of the things the MRA is trying to achieve is a more constant demand for these factories to run,” says Vola.
However, with the development of new products, such as mass plywood panels, the market could soon see a correction in supply.
The panels are made of 25 mm lamella, each with nine layers of 3.7 mm veneer. The thin layers are engineered and oriented to optimise the wood’s natural strength and dimensional stability.
According to Andrew Dunn, CEO of the Australian-based Timber Development Association, this innovative design enables mass plywood panels to outperform CLT panels of similar dimensions.
They are manufactured as large as 3.6 m wide and 14.6 m long, with thicknesses in 25 mm increments, ranging from 50 mm to 300 mm.
“MPP is produced by scarfing cross-banded LVL together, creating a CLT product. The primary bond for each LVL lamella uses phenol-formaldehyde resin in a hot press, similar to standard LVL or plywood production.
“A fascinating aspect of MPP’s manufacturing process is the cutting of the scarf joint,” says Dunn.
“Three robots perform a synchronised ballet to cut scarfs at each panel end, showcasing the marriage of technology and timber innovation.”
Education-gap amongst industry players
Education, and lack thereof, remains a persistent challenge for the industry.
“You can design timber buildings that are just as safe, just as water-resistant, just as acoustically friendly as concrete buildings – better even,” says Vola, “but we don’t have enough timber knowledge widespread in the industry to deliver them.”
Because of wood’s low weight and sensitivity to moisture, light, and fire, it’s more dependent on careful detailing and construction practices than concrete or steel.
“In a first generation of fairly poorly designed timber buildings, you see quite a number of damage cases,” says Vola. Insurers see them as well. “That’s perceived as risk. Risk translates to added cost.”
Earlier this month, Adam Jones, the founder, presented at the ‘Doing Timber Business in Queensland’ symposium, where he introduced the new tool. The software simplifies intricate structural design calculations and supplements academic knowledge with extensive educational resources.
In Europe, new incentives are underway
The new initiatives target a boost in confidence in timber construction across Europe. These are spearheaded by Waugh Thistleton in collaboration with University College London and Buro Happold, thanks to the funding provided by Built By Nature. Key initiatives undertaken include:
- Developing a pre-warrantied system of 25 building details, designed for up to six storeys in residential construction settings. They support details with specification guides addressing fire safety, water management, and best construction practices.
- The creation of an open-source document. This document aims to set competent standards for constructing mass-timber residential buildings, assuring they’re insurable and can obtain mortgages. This can spark a wave of low-carbon timber development across the UK.
- Another important project, funded by Built By Nature, is the development of similar systems for the commercial office sector. This project is a collaborative effort with a diverse consortium led by the engineering consultancy firm Elliott Wood.
In addition, through the EU-funded Build-in-Wood program, seven European cities are concentrating their efforts on enhancing timber construction. These cities range in size and include Amsterdam and Copenhagen, a borough of London, mid-sized cities like Trondheim (Norway) and Brasov (Romania), as well as smaller cities like Innsbruck (Austria) and Trento (Italy).
The rise of ESG as a financial consideration
Alongside these initiatives, private-sector investors increasingly recognise the value of timber considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors.
Vola suggests that even though timber may cost more, its environmental benefits balance the scales.
A carbon-friendly timber building appeals more to investors than a polluting, non-circular concrete one.
This shift in perception adds a positive touch to the value of timber construction and makes a compelling business case for its use.