Tasmania’s First Mass Timber Building Tops Out at Rapid Speed

According to experts, mass timber is no longer a 'proof of concept' and can compete with traditional building materials.

Tue 08 Aug 23


Tasmania’s tallest mass timber building is taking shape in downtown Launceston and its turning many heads!

As reported by ABC Tasmania, the seven-storey building which will house St Luke’s Health’s new headquarters is going up fast, much faster than those made from traditional building products like steel and concrete.

“The speed of construction has been the biggest eye-opener for us,” Fairbrother’s General Manager for North East Tasmania Marcus Perkins told ABC.

Last month, Fairbrother reported that the mass timber frame was in place, with work now moving to internal construction.

All going to plan, the building will be operational by the end of the year.

Sydney-based Terrior designed the building with five levels of massive, engineered timber beams that stand out in the skyline. 

The Terrior design retains the existing 19th-century warehouses as well as the structure of the foyer, a cross-site link that connects to the grounds of the adjacent church and associated public spaces on a ground level, such as end-of-trip facilities. (Image Credit: Terrior.)

In line with the vision of St Luke’s, the tower was designed to be the most sustainable and carbon-positive office development in Tasmania.

In a statement by the architect, “the targeted carbon reduction of 40% made this project one of the first Net Zero Carbon projects in Australia.”

Terroir said, “The building’s mass timber construction method targeted the removal of 7,665 tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere – the equivalent emissions of 2,141 cars driving 20,000km per year.”

In addition, a life cycle plan guides the timber configuration and detailing such that if the building is no longer relevant and is demolished, the structure can be re-engineered and re-used.

It is one of only a half dozen mass timber buildings under construction across Australia. 

“We are getting requests for tours every week from architects, clients, industry groups, builders, engineers, everyone,” Mr Perkins said.

Jake Herbet, Project Manager for Fairbrother, said the project featured a timber concrete hybrid connection on level 6.

“This allows us to pour a concrete slab over the top of the timber to weatherproof the deck and terrace areas.”

Xlam supplied almost 90% of the CLT panels

Xlam assisted Fairbrother with cross-laminated timber panels.

By volume, Xlam supplied 961m3 of CLT, or 89% of the total CLT on the project – with the remaining 11% provided by local manufacturer Cusp.

The CLT was Australian Grown and Manufactured using Hyne Radiata Pine.

According to Xlam, environmental drivers, the speed of construction, building aesthetics, biophilia (occupant wellness) and carbon storage were among the major drivers for this approach.

In addition to Xlam, Fairbrother reported that Hess Timber supplied the Glulam beams, and mass timber carpentry specialists Savcon also assisted with the timber build.

The CLT was Australian Grown and Manufactured using Hyne Radiata Pine.

According to Mr Perkins, mass timber is not adequately addressed in the National Building Code or Australian standards, “so we had to develop performance solutions which were referenced back to the European standards.”

WoodSolutions is pushing for greater recognition and understanding of Mass Timber products under the National Construction Code. Footage courtesy of @WoodSolutionsAustralia.
Floor-to-ceiling timber from locally salvaged hardwood

The seventh floor of the building featured an engineered floor and ceiling made from hardwood mass timber produced locally in Tasmania.

Supplied by Cusp, the world’s first FSC, PEFC and Responsible Wood certified cross-laminated timber made from hardwood, Michael Lee is proud of his work. 

“We’ve taken material destined for the wood chip pile that was going to China to make paper and built it into the timber for the built environment in a sustainable and usable manner that Fairbrother and others can use,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee is the General Manager of Cusp. 

Michael Lee from Cusp Building Solutions at Wynyard says the product he uses would have been destined for the woodchip pile. (Photo Credit: Supplied by Alice Bennet)

He is one of Australia’s foremost experts in timber, with a career in industry and academia. 

Cusp uses feedstock from fast-growing eucalyptus nitens, planted in the 1990s, to feed now defunct pulp mills. The rest is softwood-engineered mass timber shipped from interstate and overseas.

According to Cusp, its product is the world’s thinnest and strongest cross-laminated product.

A ceiling in the building using engineered timber. (Photo Credit: ABC News: Fiona Breen)
Is mass timber an alternative to traditional materials?

According to Professor Greg Nolan of the University of Tasmania’s School of Architecture and Design, the answer is a resounding yes for the right project.

In an interview with ABC Radio Hobart Mornings host Leon Compton, Professor Nolan said multi-storey structures had ground floors laid in concrete and steel, with timber on the upper floors.

“What has evolved over time is for the lower floors to have concrete structures, and then you spring up wood from above.”

This timber has a spanning capacity which is suited economically. 

Same with concrete. 

So you build the first floors to suit the car parking and make a platform to go up with timber from that point.

Professor Greg Nolan has previously presented a Guide to Wood Construction Systems. Footage courtesy of @WoodSolutionsAustralia.
Demand for mass timber is growing

The ABC reports that builders, designers and researchers involved in the high-rise are confident the fledgling building product is here to stay.

“We’ve got at least four or five happening in other cities, and so, we’ve got past infancy, past proof of concept — we are now getting to the thing where it is a contender,” said Dr Louise Wallis, deputy director of the Centre for Sustainable Architecture with Wood at the University of Tasmania.

Dr Louise Wallis (right) said mass timber is now past proof of concept and is now being recognised as a leading contender in mid-rise construction. (Photo Credit: University of Tasmania)

The sustainability of the building is attractive to prospective owners and builders.

Cement and steel manufacturing produce greenhouse emissions, whereas timber naturally absorbs carbon.

That’s why Dr Wallis believes people need to ask how and where their building products are made, just like they do with food.

“How many people have been involved, how much energy was involved in that steel and concrete … when you can use something as beautiful as timber and that’s easy to work with, how can you compare,” she added.

What are the challenges?

Using mass timber can present challenges and problems with weather conditions.

“Probably the biggest challenge is water management,” Mr Perkins told the ABC.

“We’ve put up all the mass timber through winter in Tasmania, and just trying to keep everything as dry as possible wasn’t easy.”

“There was a lot of manually sweeping, sealing joints, double sealing joints, triple sealing joints, and not having any pockets where water can sit.”

Michael Lee and Marcus Perkins inspect the engineered timber ceiling using Tasmanian eucalypt nitens.(Photo Credit: ABC News from Fiona Breen )

The only other negative is the cost — building with engineered mass timber is about 30 per cent higher than traditional products.

“The direct cost is more, without question, but the speed of construction has surprised us,” he said.

“We erected five levels of mass timber in three months … if that were traditional concrete and steel, it would have been at least double that,” Mr Perkins said.

A price the owner of this building is willing to pay for sustainability.


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