Natural Finish

Mass timber, a sustainable and fire-resistant material, is becoming more favored by developers and contractors as a construction alternative to traditional steel and concrete.
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Solid State - The STEM Teaching and Learning Facility at Michigan State University in East Lansing is fashioned from a former coal-fueled power plant. The expansion includes the use of mass timber, a structural alternative to steel and concrete. // Photographs by Trever Long
Solid State – The STEM Teaching and Learning Facility at Michigan State University in East Lansing is fashioned from a former coal-fueled power plant. The expansion includes the use of mass timber, a structural alternative to steel and concrete. // Photographs by Trever Long

Since the 1940s, the coal-fired Shaw Lane Power Plant on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing produced steam to heat buildings and generate electricity. After the power plant was decommissioned in the 1970s it sat mothballed for years, housing three giant green boilers that bristled with valves and pipes, recalling a scene from the dystopian film “Blade Runner.”

When the university decided to enlarge and modernize the power plant in 2017 to create MSU’s landmark STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Teaching and Learning Facility, it passed on using traditional building elements like concrete and steel, and instead chose wood — specifically, mass timber. 

Cited by National Geographic as the sustainable material with which future cities could be built, mass timber is an engineered wood that architects and builders increasingly see as a structural alternative to steel and concrete. Not to be confused with the stick framing used in residential construction, mass timber is a more substantial material with fire-resistant attributes particularly suited for larger commercial and industrial projects.

It’s typically formed by bonding multiple layers of spruce, pine, or fir with glue, nails, or dowels, and it comes in several forms. For columns and beams, architects typically specify the glue-laminated (glulam) method, in which lengths of dimensional lumber (2x4s, 2x6s, etc.) are laid up in the same direction and compressed with adhesive between each layer.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT), meanwhile, which is used for large floor and wall panels, also stacks and bonds layers of lumber, but in alternating 90-degree directions. The use of CLT can create lateral resistance and makes a building more resilient to wind and seismic forces.

Mass timber was developed in the 1990s in Europe, which has abundant softwood forests. The technology emerged in North America in the early 2000s. Manufacturers were drawn to the softwoods in Canada, the heavily forested Pacific Northwest, and some southeastern states. Until recently, the tallest mass timber building in the world was Mjøsa, an 18-story, 174-foot mixed-use development in Brumunddal, Norway. That record was toppled last July when Ascent, a 25-story, 284-foot wooden apartment building opened in Milwaukee.

Although Michigan is heavily forested, it lags behind other states in embracing the innovation. According to woodworks.org, an industry trade group, 1,502 mass timber projects had been built or were being designed in the United States as of June 2022.

The state has two completed mass timber buildings, including Michigan State’s STEM facility and Grace Bible Church in Ann Arbor, while four more are under development — Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, a renovation of the Kalamazoo Country Club, The Coda in Detroit’s Brush Park, and the A.B. Ford Park and Community Center in Detroit — and 33 are in the design phase. California leads the nation with 88 projects either finished or begun, and 132 in design.

Before the Michigan State University building was given the green light, architects, builders, and university officials studied the pros and cons of mass timber, spoke with industry experts, and studied prices and construction techniques. The team visited the John W. Oliver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to see a mass timber building up close.

“We concluded that there was no reason why we can’t use mass timber,” says Bill Bofysil, senior project manager at Granger Construction in Lansing, part of the contracting team.

When the former Spartan power plant’s renovation was completed in 2021, it had grown four times its original size to 176,000 square feet. Black spruce mass timber, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, was used exclusively throughout the building, and in 100 percent of the new wings. The core of the building that housed the boilers contains original and new steel, but also features four-ply CLT floor panels and seven-ply CLT stair tower panels that stretch nearly four stories tall. All columns and beams are glue laminated.

While two boilers were removed, the remaining unit was gutted and its interior is now splashed with stylized real-time projected readouts of the university’s power consumption. The STEM building’s total renovation price tag was $110 million. Builders generally see cost parity between mass timber and steel and concrete, and predict that the former will become more economical once supporting infrastructure is in place.

A force driving the adoption of mass timber construction is its ability to sequester, or trap, greenhouse gas emissions. Wood is made up of about 50 percent carbon, which is released to the atmosphere when trees die or are consumed by forest fires. Mass timber captures that carbon indefinitely.

“The 3,000 cubic meters of mass timber in the STEM building store at least 1,856 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which is like not driving an average car about 4.7 million miles or not burning about 2 million pounds of coal,” says Sandra Lupien, director, MassTimber@MSU. A “carbon dioxide equivalent” is a standardized metric for reporting the global warming potential of a variety of greenhouse gasses.

Apart from the MSU project, other area builders are recognizing the business advantages of mass timber. “When we look at the carbon reduction properties the mass timber initiative offers, this market is incredible,” says Dave Robson, group vice president, new business development, at Walbridge, a building design and construction consultant in Detroit. “We have customers that have sustainability goals, and they want to be carbon neutral by 2030 or 2040. Our goal is to get ahead of the curve so we can help them (achieve those goals).”

Builders can also realize logistical efficiencies. Mass timber beams, columns, and panels are 3-D modeled, then precisely cut, milled, and finished off-site before they’re assembled like Legos at the build site. According to the American Wood Council, developers of the Ascent building in Milwaukee said mass timber construction required 90 percent less construction traffic and 75 percent fewer workers on-site.

Frame Game - The main hall of the second floor of MSU’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility utilizes cross-laminated timber (CLT), far left, as does a lecture hall on the third floor.
Frame Game – The main hall of the second floor of MSU’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility utilizes cross-laminated timber (CLT), far left, as does a lecture hall on the third floor.

In turn, when Seattle-based design firm DLR Group calculated the potential cost savings of building a hypothetical 12-story mixed-use tower with a mass timber frame, it projected a five-month savings on the total duration of the project. This translated into completing and turning over the building in three quarters of the time of a traditionally framed concrete structure.

As part of its entry into the mass timber market, Walbridge recently signed a licensing agreement with Cree Buildings of Austria for a proprietary hybrid mass timber floor system that Robson says will allow them to install 40,000 square feet of space per day.

Compared to steel and concrete, “With mass timber you’re plumbing and detailing as you go up, so when you’re done erecting, you walk away,” Bofysil says. “There’s a quicker exchange between putting up the structure and handing it off to the next trade partner. There’s a potential for schedule compression there.”

Assembling roof and wall components at ground level can also potentially reduce the risk of worker injuries.

“Mass timber is having a moment now,” says Kevin Marshall, senior associate at IDS Architects in Troy, which is the architect of record for MSU’s STEM building. “It provides an opportunity to do things a little differently, to bring the natural environment in. We consciously kept almost all of the timber exposed, to express the material in its natural form. It expresses a biophilic nature by having timber in the structure.

“Studies are showing, more and more, that even though we spend 90 percent of our time inside buildings, we still have an innate or biological need to connect with nature. That’s evidenced in schools with improved test scores and a better ability to concentrate, and higher worker satisfaction in office environments. Just having the timber and plant material as part of your environment inside the building helps connect you to nature. Also, with steel, the connections can be messy and ugly, whereas wood connections are more elegant, machined, and finished because they’re typically more exposed.”

A 2018 report by the Beck Group, a forest products consultancy in Portland, Ore., states the business case for mass timber is promising, with potential benefits including strong fire and seismic performance. When burned, mass timber products form an outer char layer that prevents oxygen from reaching the wood beneath.

According to the report, “Mass timber structures far outperform stick framed structures and, due to the charring effect, can even outperform steel structures during very high-temperature fires in which steel will melt, deform, and fail.”

The expansion of the original power plant utilizes CLT, complemented by steel and glass panels.
The expansion of the original power plant utilizes CLT, complemented by steel and glass panels.

But what about earthquakes? Professor Daniel Dowden, of Michigan Technological University in Houghton, says steel and mass timber buildings can be built to respond in an equivalent manner to an earthquake of the same magnitude, but a mass timber structure built with cross-laminated timber walls that are designed to resist lateral forces must also be designed to withstand larger forces because wood is a brittle material compared to steel. Dowden says designers can solve this issue by using more ductile metal connections between walls and floors to secure the timber components. 

For all its benefits, hurdles remain to the wider adoption of mass timber in Michigan. The state currently enforces 2015 rules established by the International Code Council, which limits mass timber buildings to six stories.

“We can build many buildings under the 2015 code, including Michigan State’s STEM building,” Lupien says.  “If Michigan were to adopt the 2018 building code, which they’re working on right now, there would be additional mass timber options available.”

If the state adopts the 2021 building code, it will open the door to mass timber buildings up to 18 stories, depending on the building type and occupancy. 

While Michigan created numerous millionaire lumber barons in the 19th and early 20th centuries, of the state’s current 20.3 million acres of forests, 19.2 million acres are open to harvesting, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. That’s a lot of wood, but just because it exists doesn’t necessarily mean it can contribute to a mass timber boom.

Some 14 percent of Michigan’s timberland acres are owned by corporate entities, while private owners hold 63 percent. On top of that, only mass timber made from softwood is certified for use in North America, and softwood makes up only 25 percent of Michigan forests. Research conducted at Michigan Technological University hopes to provide the technical data needed to determine if hardwoods could someday be certified for use in mass timber construction in Michigan.

Currently, the state is home to 1,200 lumber mills that directly employ 41,000 workers and contribute $12.2 billion in economic output, with products ranging from furniture to paper products. The closest mass timber manufacturer is in St. Thomas, Ontario.

“We have the resources, but we don’t have the infrastructure to produce it,” says Tod Sandy, state director of training for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights. “It doesn’t make sense to log it here, then ship it down to Alabama to have it manufactured, and send it back.” 

Still, Sandy foresees more mass timber construction in Michigan, if not manufacturing. “We’re in the process of developing a mass timber installer curriculum in our training centers in Detroit, Wayland, and Marquette,” he says. “Our parent union, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, has a curriculum, as well. When we begin training our 15,000 apprentices and journeymen in 2023, manufacturers will be coming through to help us understand how to install their products.”

Under Lupien’s direction, Michigan State University is spending money to understand the potential interest in mass timber in Michigan and to foster its advancement. With $150,000 recently awarded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, an 18-month supply chain analysis and demand survey began this fall. A follow-up survey will be conducted in three years.

In addition, a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant will be used to develop, in collaboration with community colleges and universities nationwide, a curriculum for mass timber design, engineering, and construction. “This curriculum will be designed as modules that can be dropped into existing architecture, construction, construction management, and structural engineering programs so that students will have exposure to mass timber as part of their education,” Lupien says.

On a related front, a $250,000 U.S. Forest Service grant will showcase the use of nail-laminated Michigan hardwood mass timber at Shophouse Park, an outdoor recreation hub in Marquette, and at the Great Lakes Boat Building School’s facility in Cedarville, northeast of Mackinaw City in the Upper Peninsula.

“Mass timber is definitely here to stay,” says Bofysil, of Granger Construction. “We need to educate clients, engineers, architects, constructors, and building code authorities on the use of mass timber and why it’s a positive for our industry.

“I think there’s going to be a point where, if Michigan continues to adopt this, especially from a code standpoint, you’re going to start to see interest from some suppliers to mobilize in the Midwest and Michigan.”

What’s more, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Economic Development Corp., and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are working to identify mass timber manufacturing companies that might consider locating in the state.

“They’re looking at the Great Lakes region because we have a secure and steady supply of softwood lumber — pines, spruces, and firs,” says Brenda Haskill, forest marketing and outreach specialist at the DNR’s Forest Resources Division. “We’re now just in the investigative stages with several companies. We don’t have an agreement, a solid handshake from a company yet, but we’re hopeful that it’s coming as more projects are started.”


Getting on Board

Michigan developers and contractors are starting to embrace mass timber.

Sound Space - Coda, a $29-million project in Detroit’s Brush Park, will offer 10 condominiums,  a restaurant, commercial space, and parking. It will be integrated into a 19th century carriage house, and open in 2024.
Sound Space – Coda, a $29-million project in Detroit’s Brush Park, will offer 10 condominiums,
a restaurant, commercial space, and parking. It will be integrated into a 19th century carriage house, and open in 2024.

The first residential development constructed of mass timber in Michigan wasn’t spearheaded by an architect or a developer, but by Michael VanOverbeke, an employee pension attorney.

The former restaurateur — he once owned the On Stage Restaurant near Grand Circus Park — confesses to a love of Brush Park, located across Woodward Avenue from Little Caesars Arena, where he has restored four mansions from Detroit’s gilded age. His law office is nearby in the old J.L. Hudson home. “I really enjoy something that looks like it’s not going to make it, and then breathing life back into it,” he says.

VanOverbeke’s current project, Coda — named for a music or a literary term that denotes a reimagining of or a return to an earlier theme — restores and integrates a 19th century carriage house with a planned, 10-unit luxury condominium project.

“We had done the design work for the building, and then did value engineering with Oombra Architects in Philadelphia and general contractor AMHigley out of Cleveland,” VanOverbeke says. “During this process, Higley happened to mention the STEM building at Michigan State University, and they suggested that maybe we should consider mass timber.

“I was familiar with its sustainability benefits, but I automatically thought it would be double or triple the cost. The fact of the matter is, it’s very competitive. I found (mass timber manufacturer) Element5 in St. Thomas, Ontario, and learned how popular it is in Europe. The more I looked into it, I really felt that mass timber would lend itself to the beauty of these historic buildings.”

The $29-million, 89,500-square-foot Coda project along John R Street comprises a four-story parking structure, two townhomes, and a third structure that houses a first-floor restaurant, commercial space on the second floor, and eight condos on the third, fourth, and fifth floors. Mass timber will be used only in the condo building, with cross-laminated timber/CLT ceilings and floors, and load-bearing beams and columns constructed of glue-laminated timber, or “glulam.” VanOverbeke expects the project will be completed in mid-2024.

“I would like to think (Coda) will lead to more use of mass timber,” VanOverbeke says. “I did a lot of research to make sure I wasn’t building something too much out of the norm, and it was very interesting to discover how prevalent these buildings are elsewhere. Mass timber is remarkable for its sustainability and the low carbon footprint it leaves. I think that’s a huge selling feature for my prospective buyers, because people today want to be part of that change, to the extent that they can afford it.”

Element5 and Sterling Structural near Chicago are the closest manufacturers of mass timber to Detroit, but local advocates are spreading the gospel of the novel building material.

“We’re trying to build a mass timber manufacturing base in Michigan,” says Dave Robson, group vice president at Walbridge, a large contractor in Detroit. In 2021, the company became the first U.S. license holder for a patented mass timber hybrid structural system (“hybrid” means also combining concrete and steel where necessary) developed by Cree Buildings in Austria.

“Cree’s system of prefabricated panels was not only scalable, but it was modular — it used the best of all materials to create the ultimate system that could be erected faster, sequester more carbon, and be a safer installation with lower overall project costs,” Robson says. “We had to get on board with this.”

Robson says Cree is educating the Walbridge team on the world of mass timber, about which they had known nothing. “In a lot of cases, (Cree) was 10 years ahead of us,” he says. “They’ve shown us that there’s a better way to build without impacting the environment that also doesn’t impact schedule, cost, or quality, and improves safety by taking labor hours out of the field. They make suggestions and they come up with solutions. For us, that’s been huge as we embark on this mass timber evolution.” 

Although Walbridge has yet to sign a deal in Michigan, Robson says the company is in discussions with architects, engineers, subcontractors, and potential customers throughout the country, including those representing higher education, office buildings, data centers, mixed-use projects, warehouses, and manufacturing facilities. “Our strategy is going toward our existing customer base,” Robson says. “In several cases, we’ve run schematic comparisons, alternate designs, and feasibility studies to be considered.”

Robson says if a mass timber manufacturing base emerges in Michigan, it won’t be one that churns out truckloads of two-by-fours destined for do-it-yourself stores, but rather will be project-based with every panel and column custom designed and manufactured for a specific job.

“There’s 100 percent a place for mass timber manufacturing and fabrication in Michigan,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting the critical mass on board, dispelling the myths, and lowering the costs.”