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Some States Are Leaping on Mass Timber Prefab, Others Haven’t Gotten the Memo

As the real estate industry continues to adapt to a world with an increasing cost of labor, prefabricated construction is looking more and more attractive. The longstanding stigma that buildings composed of factory-made components only to be later transported and assembled on-site are of lower quality than traditional builds is melting away. Compared to the old way of getting a building off the ground, prefab construction has its perks. It’s quicker to build, has better quality control, and is more efficient so it has a lower environmental impact. But while multiple sectors are gravitating towards prefab construction, several states are lagging behind embracing it. Why? Well, a lot of prefab manufacturing revolves around the use of mass timber, and not every state’s building code is on board (literally) with embracing mass timber. At least, that’s the case for now. 

As wood as gold

Mass timber, otherwise known as engineered wood, is a composite lumber made up of derivative softwood products that have been compressed into one thick slab that can function as a structural panel, post, or beam. It was first developed in Austria in the 1990s and proliferated throughout Europe as it allowed architects and builders to create unique and visually striking structures that were both sustainable and cost-effective. But it wasn’t until just a few years ago that mass timber garnered any attention on American soil; only until very recently did mass timber office buildings start to pencil out in the U.S. 

There are a ton of benefits to using mass timber in lieu of regular lumber. It slashes wood waste, it can be more easily recycled at the end of its useful life, plus it’s lighter than concrete so foundations can be smaller. The material attributes are impressive, it’s strong enough to withstand heavy loads and seismic events and is not susceptible to rot, termite, or fire as traditional lumber. 

With climate change underway and the need to create more sustainable buildings becoming all the more pressing, the real estate industry stands to benefit significantly from mass timber adoption. But we’ve heard this spiel before, because the appeal to fit mass timber into building regulations is old news. Mass timber was adopted into the International Building Code (IBC) way back in 2015. Yeah, two whole presidents ago. 

Prefabricated building components are often made out of mass timber, the prefab industry hinges on mass timber building code compliance. But if mass timber has been an approved building material on an international scale for years now, why isn’t prefabricated construction experiencing explosive growth? Especially during a historic construction labor shortage and supply chain backlogs pushing build timelines for traditional construction methods to a painful degree? Well, you can blame the spastic pace of state regulatory hurdles.

A little build longer

It is important to note that building codes play a critical role in ensuring public safety and promoting sustainable practices, and efforts to adopt new building codes are meant to prioritize these goals. That said, the adoption of the IBC or any building code can take longer in individual states due to factors that range from the legislative process, local variations, resources, stakeholder engagement, and political will. 

BJ Siegel, co-founder and Head of Design at Juno, a San Francisco-based property startup that aims to streamline the construction process by combining a mass timber building system with strategic design, is acutely aware of the hindrance that the uneven acceptance of mass timber in the United States poses for the industry as a whole. “In theory, the IBC allows for mass timber to proliferate,” he said, “but states usually only adopt it right away if it’s great for them.” Siegel told me that states where timber was integral to the economy, like California, parts of Texas, and states along the Pacific Northwest, jumped on adopting the use of mass timber in their building code, so if you were ever curious as to why you were hearing about more prefab developments going up in those areas, like Juno’s sustainable East Austin apartments, that may be why. 

As of now, only a handful of states and specific jurisdictions have approved the use of mass timber for buildings as high as 18 stories. These states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming, and a few rogue districts in Maryland and Texas. Yet Siegel explained to me that states typically integrate the IBC on a three-year cycle, so it’s more of a waiting game for each state to catch up to the code than a regulatory obstacle course that needs to be run in order to get the code approved.

For Siegel, the glacial pace of individual state adoption presents a calculated opportunity for mass timber more so than frustrating impediment. “Really it’s an opportunity to really take a new technology and scale it as it’s being deployed across the country in a very kind of new and interesting way. The regulatory hurdle allows us to take the manufacturing process of building a structure in mass timber and move very, very quickly into certain markets versus others that are going to take a little more time,” he explained. 

The more widely mass timber is recognized and accepted as a building material, the greater the potential for growth and innovation in the prefab industry. Even though it’s old news on an international scale, the countdown for mass timber prefab to dominate the United States is only ticking down as each state gives their stamp of approval on their own time.

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