The potentials and provocations of architecture’s favorite eco-material

Mass Timber: It’s What’s for Dinner

The potentials and provocations of architecture’s favorite eco-material

(Barthelemy de Mazenod/Unsplash)

Wood construction is ancient, but it is also evolving more rapidly than ever before. Mass timber presents a new way to build renewable, plant-based urban density. As wood sequesters, stores, and avoids the most carbon of any structural material, it’s essential to low-carbon living.

However, withdrawing from a well-worn path of carbon-intensive materials is not easy. It takes time and money. Those who decide to venture into the unknown will inevitably confront significant challenges in forging new, nonextractive paths. As we work to improve the climatic impact of construction, is there a way for the risks associated with new materials that benefit us all, like mass timber, to be more collectively distributed?

Financial support for researching and developing new renewable (plant-based) building materials has historically come from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, for mass timber projects, this tradition is again gaining momentum. One of the most influential groups supporting mass timber research and development in North America is the relatively young Softwood Lumber Board, founded after a 2008 report was published by the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities. This report was produced by timber industry leaders at the request of the U.S. and Canadian governments in order to prevent trade wars between our two countries, as wood moves frequently across the border. In the report, industry leaders proposed what is known as a “check-off” program, named after 20th-century USDA programs that offered a way for commodity producers to collectively contribute funds for marketing purposes through a self-imposed tax—producers opt in by checking off the box on their tax returns. The collective funds are gathered and allocated to promote a generalized commodity, like avocados, almonds, and corn, or, in this case, softwood. Check-off funds aren’t for influencing legislation or governmental policy or promoting individual companies; they are a dependable way for farmers and stewards of natural resources to promote their crops in a way that helps everyone.

Among the best-known campaigns supported by check-off programs were ones led by still-memorable slogans: “Got Milk?” “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner,” and “Cotton, the Fabric of Our Lives.”

We inherited the idea that forests are part of the food and agricultural department at the turn of the century, from Germany, the place where cameralism, or land stewardship for the good of the state, was invented. The United States Forest Service’s (USFS) first chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, trained in Europe and toured the cameralist forests of France, Germany, and Switzerland in the 1890s before founding the Yale Forestry School in 1900. His views on how American forests should look and operate stemmed from a critique of cameralism’s efficiency and monoculture. Under Pinchot, the USFS decentralized decision-making in the forests and moved toward an emphasis on a diversity of regionally ecological and visually stunning mixed-species forests.

Pinchot’s friend Theodore Roosevelt shared strong convictions about what made a good forest. He was credited with coining the phrase “conservation of natural resources for the good of present and future generations,” but his ethos was not extended to Indigenous people. Under Roosevelt, they were forcibly removed from the forest, a move framed as a “protective” measure. These actions were mythologized by the romanticist protagonists of the day: masculine heroes valiantly defending a virgin wilderness and nation. Together, Pinchot and Roosevelt constructed a lasting image of the American forest wilderness.

Check-off campaigns are designed to influence public perception in a similar way. Not only will they begin to loosen our grip on this romanticist past but they will start to provide tangible climate solutions for the construction industry. To answer the resulting demand for mass timber, forest owners and factory owners continue a tradition of collaborating on the design of products that will provide them both with future revenue.

In 1934, a cooperative research program between a lamination plant in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) was one of the first to apply subsidized USDA funding toward the development of glue-laminated wood for construction. FPL spearheaded the development of plywood as a solution for the housing crisis after the Great Depression, resulting in Neutra’s Super Plywood kit-of-parts, among other demountable single-family house models that grew plywood into the ubiquitous material it is today. The FPL also sponsored the design, sourcing, milling, manufacturing, and construction of glulam arches with a span of 46 feet: The first building with a glue-laminated timber structure in America was a school gymnasium. This building was used for understanding and updating life safety building codes for single-story laminated structural timber.

This effort is what transformed the innovative product called “plywood” into the backbone of the American single-family typology. Although glue-laminated arches were tested at the same time, plywood was more successful. It doesn’t require heavy machinery, large volumes fit easily on trucks, standardized sizes have been easily commodified, and people can cut them into shapes close to home.

Today, this type of private and public cooperation continues, with renewed vigor in the case of cross-laminated timber (CLT), a panel form of mass timber that can replace the most fossil-fuel-intensive building materials (concrete and steel) in urban environments. Together, concrete and steel contribute 19 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions because they require so much energy to be manufactured. Melting steel and cooking clinker for cement require industrial heat that is often generated through burning fossil fuels. Plus, they are largely mined and manufactured in colonized landscapes. These materials have been the backbone of urban construction for the last 100 years, but they don’t have to be any longer. One reason why mass timber is finding footing again is because laminated panels, columns, and beams are slowly taking a page from plywood’s success: assuming the standard dimensions of truck beds to maximize fuel used in shipping, outsourcing the value-added step of CNC-milling blanks, and serving urgent typologies like multifamily housing.

Since 2015, the Wood Innovations and Community Wood Grant programs have given more than $93 million to 381 for-profit entities, state and local governments, tribes, school districts, community-based nonprofit organizations, institutions of higher education, and special purpose districts. In June, the USDA Wood Innovation Grant program, funded by President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, backed 23 projects nationwide, with the goals of supporting the production of biomass-based energy sources, zero-waste production lines, structural engineering services, and burnt-wood salvage efforts; all are intertwined with the USFS ten-year strategy for wildfire mitigation. This work is bolstered by President Biden’s executive order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies. One of the largest projects to date is last year’s USDA award of $30 million to the New England Forestry Foundation to establish forestry practices that can be shared among smallholders, commercial forests, and First Nation woodlands. The goal is to build a bigger market for mass timber on the East Coast, where there is an abundance of hardwood species, and the Foundation has already launched with a new phrase: climate smart.

To rebuild—or even imagine—equitable, nonextractive living environments for humans and nonhumans, the supply chains of material production have to change. Mass timber and its underlying protocols for cultivation, making, moving, using, and reusing must be formed through new, more pluralistic imaginaries. Think collectively owned, reparative, biodiverse forests. These can be stewarded to support all-wood, holistically healthy housing, easily reconfigured when necessary, and eventually returned to the earth. Sure, there are also low-carbon concrete and low-carbon steel alternatives on the horizon, but they are still more costly (in carbon) than wood. If we want to respond to the current and historic violences of extractivist moralities, one big step is to significantly reduce our addiction to industrial heat.

Collective risk-taking is key to real change. Demonstration projects prove to the industry and the public that new paths are viable, connecting building science, life safety research, design, and product development with a public perception campaign. The collective check-off program and resulting Softwood Lumber Board is successfully growing a new material era for plant-based cities through grants, demonstration projects, publications, and events. Its multipronged approach builds knowledge, excitement, and also revenue. Although the funding is biased toward softwoods and resists definitions for ethics in forestry practices, it seriously props up the industry’s collective risk-taking, as it requires winning teams to be already supported by manufacturers and foresters, encouraging multidisciplinary perspectives from the start.

Lindsey Wikstrom is a founding partner of Mattaforma, a research-driven architecture practice based in New York. Her new book is called Designing the Forest and Other Mass Timber Futures.