Are volatile lumber prices slowing mass timber’s rise?

Projects using the sustainable construction material largely remain on track

September 08, 2021

As COVID-19 restrictions hamstrung lumber producers and residential demand skyrocketed, lumber prices hit a record high in early May.

Now the lumber bubble is deflating. The market price for a thousand feet of board fell to $472 in the first week of August from the $1,600 high three months ago.

Lower prices have come as a relief for advocates of mass timber — a composite material made from wood but that is stronger than steel — who worried projects would be put on standby due to skyrocketing costs.

“Short term, there are some mass timber projects that did not pencil because of the lumber costs,” says Carmen Van Liere, Vice President, Project and Development Services, JLL, who previously worked for Katerra, a firm that focused heavily on mass timber. “Others stayed on track because mass timber was a much larger part of an overall sustainability plan. Cost was a factor, but not the only one.”

Swinerton’s 25-story high-rise apartment project in Milwaukee remains on schedule for a July 2022 opening. When finished, the 284-foot Ascent will be the tallest hybrid mass timber structure in the world, slightly besting the 280-foot mixed-use building in Norway currently holding that record.

“We were fortunate to be released on procurement before the lumber hysteria set in, so we locked in the costs when we didn’t have that risk,” says Christopher Evans, President of Timberlab, the mass timber arm of Swinerton. “Overall, the momentum behind mass timber is awesome right now. The litmus test is that, it’s one thing to see a mass timber building in Seattle or Portland, progressive cities with a good lumber basket, but when we see projects show up in small town America, in the middle of Iowa and North Carolina, when public agencies and universities are looking at mass timber to lower carbon emissions and help the climate change crisis, it is an indication that mass timber is no longer just about early adopters.”

The supply chain disruptions over the past year affected all materials, including steel and concrete, and lumber has fallen the fastest, making it the most cost effective in many cases, Evans says.

“Lead-times for steel structural systems are a minimum of six to eight months right now; we can deliver mass timber projects in a quicker timeline,” he says.


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Timber on the rise

Mass timber encompasses several engineered wood products used in construction, where wood pieces are connected to build a denser material that is still lightweight.

Despite relatively volatile lumber prices, its use in commercial real estate has been growing globally over the past six years, encouraged by companies’ ESG initiatives. Thousands of projects are in the pipeline, says Van Liere.

Recent project developments point to reasons to be optimistic that growth will continue. Stockholm’s Vision 2030 plan includes two city blocks where one of the largest apartment complexes built from timber in the world is currently rising. And Canadian-based manufacturing company Structurlam Mass Timber Corp. recently said its project to build massive office buildings for one of the world’s largest retailers was on track and on schedule.

Not all mass timber is the same. There are glue-laminated timber (glulam), nail-laminated timber and cross-laminated timber (CLT) varieties.

CLT in particular is gaining popularity in commercial developments because its strength rivals concrete and steel, and unlike those materials, it grows naturally and is renewable. Its manufacturing process, too, requires less energy and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions, according to research published in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry.

Building code changes

Mass timber’s rise is also thanks to building codes changes locally and internationally.

For instance, CLT only recently received the certification that allows builders to use it for tall buildings. It was introduced into the International Building Code in 2015, initially for use in buildings up to five stories tall, and was amended in 2021 to allow CLT buildings up to 18 stories high.

“The code changes totally changed the game,” Van Liere says.

Despite these developments, mass timber is not without its challenges, including the volatility of lumber compared to other materials, says Henry D’Esposito, Research Manager, National Construction JLL.

“Timber prices are always going to be a factor,” he says. “But we do expect the price of lumber to stabilize.”

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