If you look beyond the headlines, there’s an opportunity for bipartisan agreement in the Farm Bill that could change the way we build.
Architects are paying close attention to the Farm Bill because it could support innovation in building materials. Buildings account for 39 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions per year in the United States, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Wood is the only renewable building material, and instead of giving off carbon, it sequesters it. Mass timber is a newer category of wood that allows us to build taller with a carbon-sequestering material. Mass timber could be a catalyst for changing how we build.
The Timber Innovation Act (TIA) prioritizes research and development into mass timber and the construction methods that use it. Some of the bill’s language is included in the House Farm Bill, and the Senate version should include the full text. The bill directs the U.S. Forest Service to act on its mandate, which is “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
The architecture firm I founded in 2003, atelierjones, counts itself among the more than 100 supporters of the TIA. We’ve completed two multi-story projects using mass timber, specifically cross-laminated timber (CLT). The CLTHouse, is a modest 1,500 square foot house in Seattle. The second example is the Bellevue First Congressional Church, where we reused an existing 1970s steel frame building to insert a 40’ high CLT wall as backdrop to the new sanctuary.
Additionally, I represented the American Institute of Architects on the International Code Council (ICC) Tall Wood Ad Hoc Committee that spent two years researching mass timber technologies and performance. After witnessing fire tests designed by the committee and reviewing the data, its members, which included representatives from competing industries, as well as fire safety officials, recommended building code change proposals to allow for constructing tall wood buildings using mass timber. These proposals are being considered this year for inclusion in the 2021 International Building Code. Last month the proposals cleared their first, and most critical, hurdle, the ICC’s Committee Action Hearings, with each of the 14 amendments passing through the committee by very large margins. The closest vote was 12-2. They will now be considered by the ICC’s voting member, including building and fire officials from all over the country.
Concerns about building taller with wood most often center around fire. Manufacturers of mass timber are actively pursuing fire test reports for wall and floor assemblies required by the code to be fire resistance rated. In fact, one fire test of a CLT wall was key in the decision to recognize mass timber in the 2015 edition of the building code. The test was only seeking a 2-hour rating as required by the code, but the CLT wall lasted 3 hours and 6 minutes.
The U.S. design community is starting to catch up to modernize building codes that recognize this newest class of products, but the Timber Innovation Act would help accelerate that process.
Join me in supporting USDA’s work fostering healthy forests and finding innovative ways to construct safe, healthy buildings that can have a positive effect on our carbon footprint. Our future generations depend on it.
Innovation is something we can all agree on.
About the Author: Susan Jones, FAIA, LEED BD+C, is owner of atelierjones, an architecture, urban, and ecodesign firm.