Missoula architects, engineers hear advantages of mass timber construction

When it comes to rallying around wood and wood products, Missoula still shows its lumber-mill roots.

That was evident Wednesday afternoon when about 50 people packed into a mass timber workshop sponsored by eight agencies and organizations, including the Colorado-based Woodworks Wood Products Council and the Montana Department of Natural Resources. (U.S. Forest Service representatives weren’t in attendance due to the government shutdown.)

“I organize these workshops in a lot of places and we thought we’d get 25 people,” said Arnie Didier, chief operating officer of the Missoula-based Forest Business Network. “So shout-out to Missoula.”

The audience, mostly engineers and architects, were there to learn more about mass timber, a term covers almost a dozen types of building materials, all “big wood” manufactured from “small wood.” In other words, skinny, narrow boards are glued, nailed or fitted together to make big beams or sheets.

The resulting product is now being used instead of steel and concrete to build tall towers, said Woodworks Wood Products Council regional director David Hanley. So far, the tallest building is 18 stories, the Brock Commons dormitory at the University of British Columbia. Hanley went on to profile a wide array of mass-timber buildings, from large shopping malls to smaller office buildings.

Brock Commons at the University of British Columbia is the tallest mass timber structure to date, at 18 stories. (Pollux Chung/Seagate Structures)

Although mass timber is a relatively new concept, it’s been included in building codes since 2015 and has passed the needed inspections proving it earthquake and fire resistant. So Hanley encouraged the workshop attendees to incorporate more mass timber in their designs and developments, using as a prime example the Lark Hotel that Thinktank Design Group just completed in downtown Bozeman.

Probably the best thing about mass timber is it’s a market for all those young trees removed in thinning projects that the U.S. Forest Service and the DNRC are scheduling to reduce the risk of wildfire. The strength of the boards comes from the layering of components, either horizontally or parallel.

Tom Perry of the DNRC said Montana was fortunate to have so much forsested public land and a robust forest industry. The state has seven sawmills and a pulp plant, all of which add value to what was once considered no-value or low-value trees.

Now Montana has businesses that take that small wood one step further.

One of the most versatile mass-timber products is called cross-laminated timber, or CLT. SmartLam of Columbia Falls was the first company in the U.S. to manufacture CLT, which it creates by laying the boards of the first layer in one direction and the boards of the next layer at a 90-degree angle.

The resulting sheets can be three to nine layers deep and as strong as steel or concrete. They can also be prefabricated at the factory so workers only have to assemble the pieces, saving labor costs and construction time.

Hanley pointed out that the first CLT building ever constructed is in Whitefish. But there are few other examples in the state so far. Nationally, Portland is the leader in mass timber construction, with a number of tall towers already in use as office buildings and condominiums.

“There are only two CLT plants in the U.S. now, but five open in the next five months and another 20 in the next five years,” Hanley said. “It’s an exciting time in mass timber with all these products.”

The Woodworks Wood Products Council and the Forest Business Networks will hold the International Mass Timber Conference on March 19-21 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore.

Didier said the conference has been growing since it started in 2016 and he expects 1,500 attendees.