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Is Mass-Timber Construction the Key to a Future of Sustainable Building?

Sunday, May 28th, 2023


This week’s core story is about: Timber construction.


The White House and House Republicans reached an “agreement in principle” to raise the debt ceiling. The tentative agreement will have to pass both chambers of Congress by June 5th, the date Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the U.S. could run out of money to pay its bills, to avert disaster.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially announced his campaign for the Republican nomination. DeSantis made the announcement during a Twitter Spaces event with Elon Musk that was plagued by outages, poor sound quality, and the speakers’ bizarre rhetoric. DeSantis also released a more traditional announcement video on his personal Twitter account.

The founder of the far-right extremist Oath Keepers was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for his role in the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Stewart Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy in November along with fellow Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs, who was sentenced to 12 years for his role. Rhodes’s conviction is the longest sentence imposed on a January 6 defendant to date.

The Republican-led Texas House voted to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton. The vote, which passed 121-23, came after a committee this week presented allegations of bribery, abuse of public trust, and unfitness for office against Paxton. Paxton, who also admitted to violating Texas securities laws in 2014, is accused of issuing legal opinions to benefit a political donor who employed Paxton’s mistress and paid for renovations on his house.

Is Mass-Timber Construction the Key to a Future of Sustainable Building?

The Ascent apartment tower in Milwaukee rises 284 feet, making it the world’s tallest mass timber building.


Mass-timber construction has gained popularity in recent years, with several beautifully designed projects going up across the world. Some hail it as the construction-climate revolution we’ve long needed, while others caution that timber can’t solve all of our building woes. So, what does the research say about timber construction? And can it really be the magic bullet we need to build sustainably?

What’s happening:

Pictured above is the 25-story Ascent apartment tower located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home to 259 apartment units, 7,000 square feet of retail space, and 20,000 square feet of amenities. At 284 feet, Ascent (opened 2022) is the tallest mass-timber building in the world, topping Norway’s Mjøstårnet, the previous record holder, by about four feet.

Buildings like Ascent are built with mass-timber products (sometimes called “engineered timber”) like “cross-laminated timber” (CLT) and “glued laminated timber” (a.k.a., “glulam”). Without getting lost in the weeds, the products essentially consist of pieces of wood glued or fastened together in different ways to increase strength. CLT is more often used for surfaces, while glulam is primarily used for beams and other parts of the load-bearing frame.

Mass-timber products often come in large structural panels that can be used for entire walls or floors and be dropped right into place, saving builders time and effort while also offering a reliable alternative to steel and concrete due to the products’ strength and fire resistance.

Along with the durability, proponents of timber construction say it’s good for the climate, since wood can sequester carbon and generally has less embodied emissions (i.e., the emissions released throughout the entire lifecycle of the product) than steel and concrete. They argue timber could help reduce the overall carbon footprint of buildings, which account for around a third of global energy- and process-related carbon emissions.

Proponents also say timber buildings can have minimal environmental impact, including the developers of Ascent, who claim they optimized their timber usage in such a way that the wood used during construction would be replaced by natural forest growth in “less than 25 minutes” (however that works).

So, what does the research say about timber construction’s environmental impact? And can it be the key to unlocking a future of green construction? Let’s dive in.

What the research says:

A new study by researchers at Vilnius Tech University in Lithuania systematically reviewed the literature on mass-timber construction published between 1998 and 2022, finding substantial scientific support for timber as a sustainable building material, particularly due to its carbon sequestration and the fact that lumber is a renewable resource.

Several reviewed studies also emphasized the benefits of specific mass-timber products, finding CLT buildings are more resistant to overheating than concrete buildings during summer months, and prefabricated glulam products lower emissions by reducing construction time and the need for some machinery.

Attempting to quantify the impact, a review by The Nature Conservancy found substituting steel and concrete with mass timber can reduce the emissions associated with manufacturing, transporting, and installing building materials by anywhere from 13% to 27%, and a study by researchers at Tianjin University in China found the average embodied emissions of concrete buildings are 43% higher than that of mass timber alternatives.

Another study by researchers at the Potsdam Institute in Germany found housing 90% of the world’s population in wooden buildings could prevent 106 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2100, equivalent to saving around 10% of the carbon budget needed to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius this century.

Why it matters:

While the research on timber construction is positive, we’re still in the early days in the U.S., and some experts say mass-timber construction isn’t always the right option, since poorly planned timber projects can end up having higher emissions than well-planned concrete projects. Other experts say wood projects often overlook some of the environmental impacts associated with harvesting timber and what happens to the material when it reaches the end of its life.

There’s also issues of land allocation, with the German study finding that building and housing people in “timber cities” would require expanding forest plantations by around 149 million hectares (though the researchers argued this could be done without encroaching on farmland).

A “cradle-to-grave” analysis by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley may offer some answers, finding the woody biomass leftover from clearing forest overgrowth for wildfire prevention could be sold to make mass-timber products, though it would require a substantial effort by the government to initiate such a market.

So, is timber the magic solution we need to reduce emissions related to construction? The research seems to indicate it could be, if done properly.

“Properly” here doesn’t only mean examining the emissions associated with the entire lifecycle of the timber used in construction, it also includes architects, developers, and policymakers being aware of the types of buildings they’re erecting, including limiting them to shorter structures.

According to Andrew Lawrence, professor of timber engineering at Cambridge University in the U.K., “For most buildings, tall timber does not make sense. Timber's natural home is low-rise construction.”

While tall structures are indeed fun and fascinating, the reality, Lawrence says, is that “timber is best technically suited to smaller buildings . . . where it can have the most impact on reducing embodied carbon.”

So, while apartments like Ascent are nice – and projects like the W350 Plan in Tokyo would be downright otherworldly – it appears we should keep our wood low to the ground, at least for now.

Just for fun: The 2023 Wood Design Awards were announced this month by WoodWork, celebrating buildings in a variety of industries making innovative strides in how they use wood.


Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul speaks during a press conference Tuesday about a major investigation into the Catholic dioceses.

Illinois Attorney General Office

Catholic Clergy in Illinois Sexually Abused Nearly 2,000 Kids

A yearslong investigation released Tuesday by the Illinois Attorney General’s office found 451 Catholic clergy sexually abused 1,997 children in Illinois between 1950 and 2019, revealing the state’s church leaders failed to acknowledge the extent of the abuse and, in some cases, put children in danger by declining to warn parishioners about abusers in the church.

  • Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul (pictured above) acknowledged the statute of limitations had expired in many of the cases and that those abusers would “never see justice in a legal sense,” but said he hoped naming them could “provide public accountability and a measure of healing to survivors.”

  • In a joint statement issued after the investigation was released, the state’s Catholic dioceses said the investigation prompted a lengthy review of their policies and led to unspecified changes. 


Orlando Wetlands Park in central Florida. The park is a large marsh area, home to numerous birds, mammals, and reptiles.


The Supreme Court Significantly Weakened the Clean Water Act

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction only extends to wetlands that are “indistinguishable” from larger bodies of water by having a “continuous surface connection,” significantly weakening the federal government’s ability to regulate millions of acres of wetlands nationwide.

  • Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the Court’s three liberal justices in dissent, saying the majority’s decision will “leave some long-regulated adjacent wetlands no longer covered by the Clean Water Act, with significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the U.S."

  • President Joe Biden also criticized the decision, saying it “upends the legal framework that has protected America's waters for decades." Adding that the decision “defies the science that confirms the critical role of wetlands in safeguarding our nation's streams, rivers, and lakes from chemicals and pollutants.”


Some of the first cars coming out of Tesla’s German factory in March 2022.


A German News Site Published a Damning Report About Tesla’s Handling of Accident Reports Based on 100 Gigabytes of Data from a Whistleblower

German news outlet Handelsblatt combed through 23,000 internal Tesla files given to the publication by an unnamed informant, finding the company received over 2,400 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration and more than 1,500 reports of braking function issues between 2015 and 2022. Most of the incidents happened in the U.S.

  • The files also included a table of incidents involving cars’ driver assistance systems, containing over 3,000 entries of customer complaints expressing safety concerns. The files showed Tesla responded to customers by not allowing its associates to put things in writing and only sharing information when required.

  • Handelsblatt went beyond just reporting the incidents, contacting drivers to confirm the data and hiring a third party to authenticate the files. It also claimed Tesla tried to stop the publication from using the data.


A Small Number of People Are Responsible for Most Book Challenges

A new analysis by The Washington Post found a small number of people were responsible for most of the book challenges in the 2021-2022 school year, with individuals who filed 10 or more complaints being responsible for two-thirds of all challenges.

  • The analysis found 43% of the challenged books had LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36% featured characters of color dealing with issues of race or racism. However, the top reason for challenges explicitly cited by petitioners was over what they deemed to be “sexual” content (61%).

  • Of the 182 books challenged on the basis of LGBTQ content (18% of all challenges), 114 also included “sexual” content as a reason, with many petitioners citing antiquated, false beliefs that reading about LGBTQ people would cause their children to become gay or alter their gender. Several petitioners also believed authors intentionally write books trying to “persuade” kids to become gay. 


More than Half of the World’s Largest Lakes Are Shrinking Due to Human Activities

A new study by researchers at the University of Colorado found 53% of the world’s large natural lakes and human-made reservoirs have experienced a “significant” decline in water storage over the past 30 years, largely due to climate change and other human activities like damming and consumption.

  • The researchers analyzed satellite data of nearly 2,000 of the world’s largest lakes, observing large losses of water volume in both dry and wet areas of the planet.

  • At the same time, the team also found 24% of the lakes experienced significant increases in water storage over the study period, though they still called for global action managing water resources for the 2 billion people living in areas where lake storage volume has fallen drastically.


TikTok Views Are Down

A new analysis by Adweek found the number of viral hits (any video with over 10 million views) on TikTok has fallen over the past year, dropping to fewer than 4,600 such videos per week in April, down from a peak of 9,259 per week in February 2022.

  • Less viral videos (those with over 100,000 views) have also experienced a drop in views over the past year, falling from an average of 219,000 per week six months ago to 212,000 today (though the drop isn’t truly an outlier yet, suggesting the recent dip may not be a long-term indicator).

  • Adweek says the drop in views stem from a number of things, including TikTok becoming more saturated overall and increased competition for the app’s biggest stars as smaller creators siphon views and engagement.


  • $1.3 billion - The fine levied on Meta by the E.U.’s privacy regulator over the company’s handling of user information. Meta was also ordered to stop transferring user data to the U.S. The fine is the largest penalty imposed by the E.U. since its strict data privacy changes took effect five years ago.

  • 527 million - The number of chicken sandwiches served by Chick-fil-A to its roughly 2.1 billion guests in 2022, according to the company’s yearly review. The company previously announced it generated $18.814 billion in sales last year, trailing only McDonald’s ($48.7 billion) and Starbucks ($28.1 billion) among U.S. restaurant chains.

  • 1.68 trillion pounds - The estimated cumulative mass of the 1,084,954 buildings in New York City, according to a new study by researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey. The study also found the city is sinking, or subsiding, at a rate of about 1-2 mm per year.

  • $100,000 - How much Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) paid for a tube of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s used chapstick during an auction this week raising funds for the House GOP campaign arm. Greene only bid after McCarthy agreed to attend a dinner with the winner and whichever donors or supporters they wanted to bring along.


Long Video. The world’s oldest construction project. (18 min)

Short Video. Analyzing Succession characters’ finances with a real financial expert. (9 min)

Fun Video. Learn why soda cans are shaped differently in Hawaii. (5 min)

Good Read. Are we living in the era of the side chick? (1,280 words; 6 min)

Neat List. Dr. Beach released its annual list of the top 10 beaches in America.


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Written by Ryan Wittler