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Mass Timber Momentum Expands Forest Products Markets

Brian Brashaw and Kevin Naranjo
USDA Forest Service
October 21, 2020

A conceptual picture of a building constructed all with wood.
Rendering of the Ascent project, in Milwaukee, 19 stories of Cross Laminate Timber over a concrete podium for a total of 25 stories. (Image Credits: Korb and Ascent MKE.)

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is revolutionizing the building industry in the U.S., creating important market-based approaches to responsible forest management and sustainable environmental solutions.

This September, construction began on the world’s tallest timber building. The Ascent project, in Milwaukee, comprises 19 stories of CLT over a concrete podium (for a total of 25 stories). Ascent demonstrates the value and potential of mass timber as a high-rise building material. USDA Forest Service strategic investments through Wood Innovations Grants and partnerships with WoodWorks, Think Wood, and many others, have stimulated these new opportunities for wood.

New and innovative fire, seismic, and structural research, completed by the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory and their partners, has supported key changes in the 2021 International Code Council national building code. These innovations are opening new paths to construct tall buildings across the country, new markets for forest products, and consequently, new incentives for sustainable forest management.

Wood used for construction creates new markets for wood products and results in the sustainable management needed to create healthy forests. It also supports forest management by removing forest fuels, creating improvements on the land and reducing wildfire risk.

Cross-laminated and other mass timber products are the carbon-storing building material of the future, while also offering beautiful, natural environments for those who live and work in these buildings. This type of construction is lighter, shortens the construction schedule, and is quieter—all supporting improved environmental benefits.

A conceptual drawing of the inside of a building constructed all in wood.
Rendering of mass timber’s unique aesthetic: juxtaposing wood with high-rise windows. (Image Credits: Korb and Ascent MKE.)

In 2014, when the Forest Service began building engagement in cross-laminated timber, only a handful of projects were built, and there were no manufacturing plants. Today, WoodWorks receives Forest Service funds to provide education and project assistance for architects, engineers, and developers. They report that over 384 mass timber projects are complete or underway, with more than 500 now in design.

There are 10 CLT manufacturing plants in the U.S., creating a strong market for sustainably sourced lumber from state, federal, and private forests. To further support construction, the new approved 2021 tall timber building code sections are already adopted in California, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. Denver also allows the new code, and other cities and states are considering it.

The Wood Innovations and Community Wood grant programs are important tools to support market-based approaches to healthy, sustainable forests. These programs create opportunities for organizations and companies to apply for funding to increase and support markets for wood products.

Announced on October 20, the grant programs are proven paths to increase the use of and markets for wood products. They have supported design for construction projects like Ascent, expansion of CLT manufacturers, and catalyzed the use of wood in blast-resistant on-base military hotels. Learn more about applying for this year’s grants.