How VIATechnik is Promoting Mass Timber Construction with BIM

The world’s population is booming. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, urban areas will welcome 2.5 billion new residents by 2050.

In addition to requiring more housing, this population increase will drive up demand for urban development of all kinds. The problem is that cities can’t expand outward indefinitely, or they risk urban sprawl. This leaves cities with only one option: to build up.

There is also an increased focus on sustainability in new building projects. The reason for this is simple: the built environment consumers energy and produces carbon emissions. In recent years, climate advocates worldwide have begun to pay more attention to these issues. The global construction industry is currently dominated by concrete and cement production, the primary ingredient in concrete is a major polluter, producing a ton of CO2 for every ton of cement. It’s clear what a complex development challenge the impending population boom presents.

One approach to reducing the environmental impacts of construction is to utilize materials with lower environmental footprints, such as wood. Today engineered wood products and prefabrication are combining forces to further this mission and promote sustainable building practices around the world.

What is Mass Timber and Why Should You Care?

Mass timber is a construction system that uses large, solid wood structural elements in place of traditional building elements.

According to the American Wood Council, mass timber uses wood panels “for wall, floor, and roof construction. It also includes innovative forms of sculptural buildings, and non- building structures formed from solid wood panel or framing systems of six feet or more in width or depth.”

Mass timber is essential for many reasons. The most notable is that traditional building methods can’t keep up with rapid population growth. In addition to being time-consuming and difficult to erect, they also have a large environmental footprint. Mass timber, however, does not. In fact, replacing steel with mass timber has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 15-20%.

Below are several additional reasons wood is such an intelligent material choice for the future of urban construction:

Faster, streamlined on-site construction. Prefabricated sections of mass timber can be produced in large mills off-site, and arrive at the job site ready to be assembled. This improves building quality and reduces labor and material costs.

Fire resistance. Wood elements char on the outside while protecting internal cores. The external char layer creates an insulative layer, which protects the interior structure from damage. Consider the outcome of one ASTM E119 fire endurance test conducted by the American Wood Council (AWC) on a CLT wall at NGC Testing Services in Buffalo, N.Y. According to Civil and Structural Engineer Magazine, “The wall, a five-ply CLT specimen (approximately 7 in. thick), was covered on each side with a single layer of 5/8-in. Type X gypsum wallboard. The wall was loaded to the maximum attainable by the test equipment, although it remained significantly below the full design strength of the CLT. It was then exposed to a standard fire that reached over 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit in the first 90 minutes of exposure. While AWC was only seeking a two-hour rating as required by building code provisions, the test specimen lasted 3 hours, 6 minutes.” This far outpaces the two-hour rating that building codes currently require, and demonstrates precisely how mass timber can keep occupants safe during a fire event.

Compact footprints. Mass timber offers a high building-volume-to-surface-area ratio, which creates a spacious interior, even when the footprint of a building is constricted, which is frequently the case with tall, compact structures like high-rise buildings. Additionally, mass timber buildings weigh only one-fifth of traditional concrete buildings, which reduces foundation size.

Market adoption. In the coming years, mass timber will find its market sector. This will primarily be in high-rise construction and commercial or multi-family building projects. While the material is not cost-competitive for single-family and low-rise buildings (timber frame is far more economical for these purposes), it stands to be a cost-competitive and environmentally friendly alternative to concrete and steel construction for high-rise buildings.

The Future of Mass Timber in the U.S.

While mass timber is an innovative new product in the U.S. market, it’s already in use in many places throughout the world. In the last five years, more than 21 tall wood buildings have been constructed around the globe. Locations include Norway, London, Montreal, Quebec City, Australia, and several U.S. Cities.

In the coming years, building codes will continue to evolve, which will pave the way for tall wood construction. While the current building code allows for certain heavy timber systems, they don’t allow for mass timber products in buildings taller than five stories. This will change in 2021, however, as the 2021 IBC is slated to include wood buildings up to 18 stories tall.  

Currently, organizations around the world are carrying out durability, fire, acoustic, and seismic performance testing on tall wood assemblies. Meanwhile, commercialization of CLT and other mass timber products is increasing, and off-site fabrication facilities are cropping up nationwide.

While the challenges of building for the modern world aren’t going to decrease in the coming years, mass timber stands out as a sustainable alternative to concrete and steel for tall buildings.

The Role of BIM and VDC Technologies in the Development of the U.S. Mass Timber Industry

Mass timber provides an efficient building experience on its own, but the deployment of BIM and VDC technologies stand to take its applicability several steps further.

Built to help contractors streamline daily operations, BIM plays an essential role in design, preconstruction, and all phases of the project lifecycle. When used in conjunction with mass timber, it offers the following benefits:

Prefabrication. Prefabrication allows pre-construction duties to be conducted in a factory. Elements are then transported to the site, where they are assembled.

Trade coordination. With the help of BIM, contractors can coordinate trades (plumbing, fire protection, electrical, and HVAC) beforehand. This allows a team to avoid changes (and additional cost) during construction. It also allows for better collaboration and communication and ensures all design stakeholders have equal insight into a project.

Reduced cost. According to a 2016 study conducted by McKinsey, 75% of companies that adopt BIM report positive ROIs. This is because BIM allows for reductions in tender-risk premiums, insurance costs, and claims. In the area of mass timber, specifically, BIM reduces waste on unused materials and allows prefabricated elements to be constructed (rather than created) on-site.

4D Scheduling. BIM and associated technologies enable teams to use 4D scheduling to know exactly how the construction process is progressing, and how long it will take. Because of this, 4D scheduling also makes construction projects more efficient by reducing project cycle time and virtually eliminating construction schedule setbacks. With BIM, design and documentation can co-occur, and documentation can shift quickly to adapt to new site conditions and information.

Project visualization. VR and AR technologies help teams visualize and avoid issues during the construction process. With the help of BIM, contractors can plan and visualize an entire project during the preconstruction phase – before anyone breaks ground. Technologies like space-use simulations and 3D visualizations allow teams to make changes before building ensues. This minimizes the likelihood of expensive and time-consuming change orders later in the project. It also makes job sites safer by pinpointing risks before they become true hazards.

Today, the use of BIM paves the way for more integrated teams, where manufacturers, fabricators, engineers, and installers all share responsibilities. This arrangement represents the future of engineered wood products and will go a long way toward making the building method more affordable and accessible.

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