VIDEO: Mass Timber Likely a Viable, Less Expensive Solution in Building Many New England Homes

Wed April 24, 2024
Connecticut Public Radio & CEG

In a remodeled furniture factory-turned-apartment building in New Haven, Conn., the walls and ceiling are all yellow pine, harvested from Alabama.

"So here we are, let's come into the bedroom," said developer Jeff Spiritos as he led a Connecticut Public Radio reporter on a recent site visit of the future ACME Timber Lofts structure.

Spiritos pointed to the wood's natural texture in the nearly completed building, as early April light filtered through the extra insulated, triple-glazed windows, designed to improve ventilation.

"The gaps in between wood, [is] something that's natural and we're not trying to hide the fact that it's natural wood," he added.

Across New England, developers are looking for new ways to increase affordable housing inventory, and some are trying to do so by using mass timber to inflict less environmental damage.

Spiritos's building will eventually hold 18 apartments, with the top two floors constructed entirely of mass timber.

He also is in the midst of constructing another mass timber apartment building in New Haven that will be home to many residents with low incomes — those earning 25 percent of the area's median income.

Mass timber, short for massive timber, is a construction model that uses pre-manufactured solid wood panels in place of concrete and steel, which are major emitters of carbon dioxide.

Using a renewable source and with most of the pieces made elsewhere and pieced together on site, labor costs and environmental impacts are less.

"The environment is really causing us to [do this]," Spiritos told the public radio network. "The affordability crisis is a mandate, and when you put them together, you're really getting to mass timber being worth a real second look."

Mass Timber in Climate-Friendly Housing

While it has been used for decades in Europe and the Pacific Northwest, only in recent years has an increase in mass timber construction in New England been seen, though not to the degree proponents would like.

Regardless, some say it could be key to creating sustainable new housing in the region.

Amanda Smith, a researcher specializing in buildings with the Minnesota-based nonprofit Project Drawdown, said to create more climate-friendly buildings, officials need to look at reducing the amount of energy that buildings use in their everyday operation, and reducing the amount of emissions created in the construction of the buildings.

That is where mass timber has the most potential, Smith said. Using wood to create strong walls and beams requires much less use of fossil fuels.

"It's important to look into the forestry practices of where you're sourcing that mass timber from," she noted. "But it's maybe our best hope for reducing our use of concrete and steel."

Expanding Mass Timber in New England

It may be hard to replace carbon and steel in our tallest skyscrapers, but mass timber buildings are getting taller, according to Ricky McLain with the Wood Works Products Council. A 2021 building code change allowed mass timber buildings to go up to 18 stories, he said.

"In those taller buildings, they're nearly all multifamily for mass timber," McLain continued. "I think what that did was open people's eyes [and have them] say, ‘Okay, mass timber can be used in multifamily [and works] well.'"

But he sees a few reasons it is not being used more often for housing in the Northeast, including that mass timber often has a higher upfront cost because, currently, the wood is shipped from the Southern states, Canada and Europe.

"That's very difficult to convince a private developer who is maybe trying to do an affordable housing project and costs are extremely important," McLain said.

Costs would go down if there were suppliers of mass timber in New England, but that requires more existing mass timber constructions.

"The potential suppliers that are looking at coming, they want to see that the demand is already here," McLain told Connecticut Public Radio. "They don't want to hear there's interest, they want to see that there are real projects. So, it's a chicken and egg problem."

Where mass timber can be cheaper is in its labor costs due to the fact that such projects typically need between six and 10 workers, a fraction of the number used in steel and concrete constructions.

"The fact that you're needing that much fewer laborers on site is beneficial where there's not that much availability of labor," he added.

Supporting Region's Timber Industry

Of course, what New England has is plenty of trees, and foresters looking to sell their wood.

A viable mass timber industry in the region would create a new market for wood, leading to more forest maintenance as trees are harvested, according to Chad Oliver, a professor emeritus at the Yale School of the Environment.

He calls it a "triple win."

"We have better biodiversity," Oliver noted, "we have less fire and CO2 pollution from fires, and we have less CO2 pollution from building things out of steel and concrete."

The biggest challenge facing a mass timber industry in New England is that it is still new to the area, and it would be more utilized in housing developments if more people understood the benefits, he said.

"There's a lot of misinformation that leads people to think it's not environmentally sound, when, in fact, it's extremely environmentally sound," Oliver explained. "New England would come around to that. There are certain incentives that could be put in [place] that would really help it move faster."