Mass timber on the rise in the Pacific Northwest

Authors: Marcus Kauffman, Oregon Mass Timber Coalition and Patrick McHugh

Posted on May 20, 2024

Big things are growing in the land of big trees. Mass timber may not be a household term yet, but the potential for a sustainable supply chain from the forest to the front door has a lot of people excited. Significant funding lined up behind the potential when the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition (OMTC) was awarded a $41.4 million grant from the Economic Development Administration as part of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Figure 1: Portland International Airport Mass Timber Roof Under Construction

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Now a coalition of partners from industry, state government, and higher education are laying the foundations for a new era in building construction.

What is mass timber?

If you’ve never heard the phrase “mass timber,” it is an umbrella term to describe engineered wood products consisting of multiple layers of lumber or veneer joined together by glue or other fasteners to form solid timber panels, columns, and beams. Popular products include cross-laminated timber (CLT) and mass plywood (MPP). In both products, building components like panels and beams are manufactured by gluing smaller pieces of sawn lumber or veneer together. With a higher strength-to-weight ratio than steel or concrete, mass timber can be used to construct tall buildings using wood for the main structural elements. Prefabricating the components in a factory and then assembling them on site can also reduce construction cost and time, which is particularly important when rising construction costs are contributing to housing shortages and increasing housing costs.

Modular housing made from mass timber can also help meet the region's need for missing middle and affordable housing. Compared to traditional construction, modular homes can be built faster and create less waste with options available for both single-family and multifamily housing.

The raw material for mass timber (trees) can also support sustainable and restorative forms of forestry. Because mass timber does not require large pieces of lumber, smaller trees can be harvested by thinning dense forest growth, which supports forest health and makes them more resilient to wildfires. Track and trace strategies, like those OMTC promotes, also help create additional transparency and accountability in the supply chain, which provides the industry with more confidence that their wood choices are supporting sound and sustainable forestry.

Finally, mass timber can be a tool to fight climate change. Producing steel and concrete is carbon-intensive, so reducing demand for these building materials can dramatically lower the carbon costs of new construction. Going beyond simple carbon reduction, mass timber can turn our built environments into long-term carbon storage sinks. Mass timber buildings lock up the carbon that trees absorbed when they were growing, preventing its release into the atmosphere during its useful life, possibly longer if the building components are re-used in other structures, an idea that is gathering increasing attention.

From the ashes a new coalition forms

Oregon’s unprecedented 2020 wildfire season claimed 11 lives, burned over 1 million acres, and destroyed over 4,000 homes. As the smoke cleared and the state began to rebuild, a small group met to discuss the potential role of mass timber in rebuilding. Could the technology that creates tall wood buildings be used to fabricate replacements for homes lost in the fires? Could fire-damaged wood be used as raw material for new mass timber manufacturing? These questions drove the formation of the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition.

The statewide effort to reimagine the role of mass timber found an unexpected champion in the Port of Portland. The Port had recently chosen to use mass timber for their new main terminal roof at Portland International Airport (PDX). They embraced locally sourced mass timber and worked with partners to set sustainable sourcing criteria that created opportunity for foresters and businesses across the region. With 100% of the wood volume (2.6 million board feet, to be exact) coming from within 300 miles of the airport, the Port saw the possibility for mass timber's role as a catalyst for regional economic development. “The Port has long been a driver of regional economic development focused on creating more economic opportunity for people in our region. When we saw academics, industry, and state agencies coming together to support mass timber development, it was a natural fit for us. We were excited to lead the Coalition’s pursuit of the EDA’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge,” said Ken Anderton, Senior Manager, Port of Portland and OMTC’s Regional Economic Competitiveness Officer (RECO).

Building the Mass Timber and Housing Innovation Campus

Development is underway at the Port of Portland’s Mass Timber and Housing Innovation Campus. Situated at a former marine terminal, this 40-acre campus will serve as a hub for manufacturing facilities, mass timber research and development, and incubator space for small businesses focused on housing, mass timber, and other climate initiatives. The campus is already taking shape, with one building currently undergoing renovations to accommodate Modomi, a local business that will produce modular workforce housing.

Over the next few years, significant changes are anticipated for the campus. These include soil stabilization, site infrastructure enhancements, the construction of a mass timber housing manufacturing factory, and the establishment of the University of Oregon’s acoustic research laboratory (OARL). For the Port, bringing together construction and manufacturing partners, climate-tech innovators, small businesses, and other partners in the housing and mass timber ecosystems is more than just a development project. It’s about creating a stronger workforce, providing powerful opportunities for Oregon families and small businesses, and revving up the state’s economy. Notably, the campus has gained momentum and is attracting interest from the private sector. The Port of Portland continues to promote the campus to attract additional tenants in the mass timber, housing, and climate-tech industries.

Advanced prototyping illuminates the possibilities

The TallWood Design Institute (TDI) is currently constructing a two-story mass timber housing prototype to show what is possible with modular mass timber. A collaboration between the Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, TDI is the nation’s first interdisciplinary research collaborative focused entirely on mass timber and wood product building solutions. TDI has done cutting edge work on a range of topics including the structural and seismic performance of mass timber, fire resistance, acoustics, and energy performance. Their recent prototype, led by University of Oregon faculty, is testing the constructability, thermal efficiency, and seismic resilience of a 760 square foot two-bedroom mass timber house. Once the prototype is complete, TDI will make the plans available via an open-source platform so housing developers can use them in the real world.

Equity Oversight Committee formed

OMTC recently held an open call for applications to serve as part of an Equity Oversight Committee. After hosting two information sessions in December, the Coalition has formed a group to ensure historically disadvantaged groups are at the table as a new manufacturing and construction industry takes shape. The newly empaneled Equity Oversight Committee is helping to actively integrate equity considerations into the work of the Coalition.

Charting a course for a growing global industry

Coalition partners made a strong showing at the 2024 International Mass Timber Conference held in Portland at the end of March. The event attracted over 3,000 people from 30 countries. OMTC shared a video and operated a booth throughout the event. TDI stood up an extensive research demonstration area at the conference that included an elaborate mass timber re-use pavilion, live research demonstrations, student posters, a 25’ Douglas fir tree, and interactive timber harvesting simulators. More than 100 people participated in a mass timber supply chain tour, including visiting the site of the 2020 Beachie Creek-Lion’s Head Fire, which charred over 400,000 acres and destroyed 1,500 structures, and where the Detroit Ranger Station is now replacing some of those lost buildings using mass timber construction. Another 60 attendees also visited the developing Mass Timber and Housing Innovation Campus and the new mass timber roof at the PDX terminal.

Figure 2: Women in Timber Power Hour – 2024 International Mass Timber Conference

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The conference provided a venue for OMTC to further its mission to build an inclusive and equitable mass timber industry. OMTC covered the costs for 12 attendees who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to attend, including several members of its Equity Oversight Committee. The conference also featured a Women in Timber Power Hour that provided an opportunity for OMTC members to forge connections with peers from around the world.

Tech hubs designation to foster global competitiveness

OMTC was at the heart of a successful application to be named one of EDA’s new tech hubs authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act. The Pacific Northwest Mass Timber Tech Hub is led by Oregon State University, one of the core members of OMTC. The tech hub encompasses both Washington and Oregon and plans to make further investments in advanced materials science with the goal of becoming “a globally competitive cluster of mass timber manufacturing and design within ten years.”

Major new manufacturing facility announced

All the planning, research, infrastructure, and partnership cultivation is translating into tangible economic development wins, including major capital investments. Portland firm Timberlab recently announced plans to build a cross-laminated timber manufacturing facility in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, citing the momentum and investments around mass timber as part of what sealed the deal. The company expressed excitement about continuing to partner with Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, and TDI, all core partners in OMTC. The facility is scheduled to open in 2027, creating 35 new manufacturing jobs at start up and about 100 jobs within five years.

There is still a long road between where we are today and the sustainable and equitable mass timber industry that OMTC is working toward, but with more pieces of the puzzle aligning and major private and public capital pouring into the sector, we are starting to see these Pacific Northwest initiatives shaping the future of our built environment.

This blog was prepared by RTI using federal funds under award ED22HDQ3070079 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.