Mark Oberholzer – Mass Timber Buildings May Provide a Benefit Beyond Sustainability: Earthquake Resistance

CoStar News

July 17, 2023

Early Results in World’s Biggest Test of Its Kind Raise Possibility of More West Coast Timber Projects

Buildings made from wood have long provided a warm, aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, while appealing to real estate investors trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Now, results from a new research project show wood buildings have another benefit: they may fare just as well as traditional construction in earthquakes.

An experiment started a few months ago at the University of California, San Diego involving more than 40 corporate and academic professionals is indicating that high-rise timber buildings are able to resist violent shaking. Tests on a 10-story timber structure, called TallWood, built for the project on the campus so far find a greater degree of earthquake resistance than expected.

“We were expecting some sort of damage but what we have observed is that this is the most boring test ever,” said Shiling Pei, a civil engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines leading the San Diego experiment. “Nothing breaks” even when subjected to the most intense earthquake simulations, he said, adding that more testing is planned for later this summer.

These early findings are significant for the commercial real estate industry because of the increasing popularity of structures made mostly from timber in the United States. Architects and engineers are seeking to expand the use of timber as building codes change and taller timber structures are built.

The type of timber used in building projects known as mass timber, which refers to several different types of engineered wood products, comprises planks of treated wood — typically spruce, fir or pine — attached to each other by glue or other adhesives. The finished product has strength and fire-resistant characteristics that are equal to concrete and steel.

Architects, construction and engineering firms and private timber companies have been striving for years to design buildings with ever-higher proportions of mass timber and lower amounts of steel and concrete. TallWood is the highest building made primarily from mass timber ever tested anywhere in the world for large-scale earthquakes, according to Dan Dolan, a civil engineering professor at Washington State University who is participating in the experiment at UC-San Diego.

Even with buildings like TallWood where the floors, walls, ceilings and framing are all made from mass timber, some concrete and steel is still used in areas like the foundation or in anchors, fasteners, nails and screws.

The buildings still have hurdles to overcome, including in terms of total costs, proving their strength, and winning over the insurance industry. But the tests are showing the areas where improvements could be made.

Lateral Stress Testing

The TallWood experiment involves placing the structure on a movable platform, called a shake table, that simulates earthquake conditions. The National Science Foundation provided $2 million in grants to help fund the design and construction of the test building, which is expected to be torn down once the experiment is complete. Timber companies and universities are also supporting the project through funding and research, though the organizations providing funding have not been disclosed.

The San Diego experiment is notable because it examines the ability of mass timber to handle lateral-direction stresses caused by earthquakes, according to structural engineer David Cocke. Lateral systems are typically made from concrete and steel.

“It’s got real potential,” Cocke, principal and founder of engineering firm Structural Focus, told CoStar News. “You will need to convince planners that it’s viable, but I do think some version of mass timber lateral systems will happen.”

The global push to combat climate change and related popularity of wood buildings is likely to create more demand for new mass timber construction, said William Silva, director of pre-construction at Swinerton, a national construction company that is providing engineering services for the San Diego research project. And much of the surge could happen on the West Coast in some of the world’s most notable earthquake hot spots.

“It’s becoming increasingly mainstream,” Silva told CoStar News.

As the technology has advanced in the production methods of mass timber, architects and construction engineers have been able to use more of it in building designs. It helps that mass timber is more flexible, or ductile, than traditional building materials.

“Wood has better ductility than concrete or steel,” Jonathan Heppner, a partner at Lever Architecture in Portland, Oregon, told CoStar News. That “allows it to deform and flex during a seismic event without failure.” Heppner and his firm served as lead architects for the building used in the San Diego earthquake test.

It takes less carbon to produce mass timber than concrete and steel, Mark Oberholzer, principal at architecture firm KTGY, a creator of mass timber designs, told CoStar News. That makes mass timber buildings more appealing to real estate investors.

“A building that uses a lot of energy or was built from materials that required a lot of energy has a lower value,” Oberholzer said.

Getting Taller

Design and construction firms in recent years have been already moving toward buildings made from mass timber. Sycamore & Oak, a retail space and small business incubator that opened last month in Washington, D.C., is made largely from mass timber. The University of Idaho’s 4,200-seat basketball arena that opened in 2021 uses mass timber for support beams.

What’s changing is the increasing frequency of using mass timber for all property types across North America. Dozens of new designs that use mass timber are planned in the United States and Canada, and many are located in regions with high rates of seismic activity. The designs are also getting taller.

“There are some mass timber buildings in Vancouver, British Columbia, that are tall, but they rely on a concrete core,” or the central part of a building that, combined with an exterior steel frame, provides the structural support for earthquake resistance, Oberholzer said. “The hope is to eliminate giant concrete cores and concrete sheer walls,” he said.

Some developers are exploring the potential to develop mass timber buildings up to 18 stories tall, provided local jurisdictions amend building codes to allow for that height, said Pei, the civil engineering professor with the Colorado School of Mines.

Still, it’s not guaranteed that mass timber will replace concrete and steel as the primary type of building material used in commercial construction. Mass timber is still more expensive, Pei said.

“Because we don’t have enough domestic production of mass timber, the prices are still higher,” Pei told CoStar News. He estimated that mass timber carries a 5% to 10% cost premium over concrete and steel.

Some insurance companies may also charge higher premiums for mass timber buildings, though industry standards have not yet been established, Pei said.

Specialized Insurance

Buildings constructed in earthquake zones already require separate insurance policies, said Don Griffin, vice president of policy at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association industry trade group. Some underwriters will provide discounts to property owners that retrofit buildings with materials designed to withstand earthquakes.

“The insurance industry strongly encourages homeowners, renters, and businesses to reduce the potential damage from earthquakes by strengthening homes and businesses,” Griffin said in an emailed statement.

Despite higher insurance costs, Silva with construction company Swinerton said his firm is getting more inquiries from developers about mass timber buildings. The Timberlab division of Swinerton provides building components used in mass timber construction.

“We see it coming to housing, civic buildings, medical and airports,” Silva said.

Meanwhile, Lever Architecture’s clients that have commissioned mass timber buildings respond very favorably to the building material, said Heppner, a partner at the Portland-based firm. The experience of natural wood on the interior and exterior of a building is something many developers think is worth paying for, Heppner said.

“Mass timber buildings just feel good to be in,” Heppner said. “They are warm, tactile and approachable.”