The 2023 International Mass Timber Conference

27th April 2023

  • Events, Seminars & Workshops
  • ·


Everything is bigger in the US...and sometimes that is a good thing. Especially if it allows for the rapid development and adoption of technologies that will help reduce emissions associated with the built environment.

Lisa Oliver (Vice President of the Timber Design Society and Timber Design Centre governance group member) last month attended the 2023 International Mass Timber Conference held in Portland, Oregon. Here are her three key takeaways from this prestigious industry event:

  • Smart projects are what we should be aspiring to here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  • Just because it’s timber doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.
  • Collaborate, don’t compete.

The International Mass Timber Conference attracts over 3000 delegates and 150 exhibitors. Lisa says, “It’s huge compared to anything hosted in Aotearoa New Zealand. The US market has big players like Google who are happy to pay extra for ‘jewel box’ timber projects, so the number of multi-storey mass timber projects that were showcased at the conference was far greater than the number of mass timber projects we have at home here in NZ.”

That aside, Lisa’s enthusiasm was refreshed by seeing that New Zealand’s mass timber industry is not that far behind our counterparts in the US, where this rapid uptake of mass timber has all happened in the last five years. The conference sessions covered the same learnings and advice for timber projects one would hear locally in a Timber Design Society webinar, or WoodWorks NZ conference. And many of the exhibitors were familiar as they are also present in New Zealand.

So, what do we need to do to see a similar increase in the uptake of mass timber here?

1. Understand why you are using timber and optimise for it!

Lisa says the conference highlighted that there are two types of timber projects:

  • ‘Jewel Boxes’ - where timber is used for its aesthetic appeal and to tick a token sustainability box. These tend to get all the press but are rarely cost effective.
  • ‘Smart projects’ - those using timber because through smart design it is determined to be the best construction material. The design of these ‘smart projects’ is often structure-led and involves early collaboration by the whole design team (including contractors and suppliers). These projects achieve low carbon, rapid construction, and cost efficiency. It means they are a competitive option for multi-unit housing and mid-rise commercial buildings. This type of project is what Lisa believes we should be aspiring to. She says, “They don't need to be completely utilitarian, they can also be amazing spaces! I was fortunate to visit the Thesis HQ building by LEVER Architecture (with Holmes US as structural engineers). It was a great example of a smart project.” See the case study below.

2. Do all you can to make buildings more sustainable

Conference keynote speaker, Michael Green stated, “We are not building sustainable buildings simply by making them timber”. He agreed timber is a great start to being more sustainable, but we can't stop there. Michael provided an example of where his team had done an exercise to see how much material could be saved if only what was structurally required was used and found a massive 27% reduction in material was achieved (making the overall structure lighter, which would further reduce the volume of material required). Green envisions a future where buildings are robotically formed with a (yet to be developed) plant-based building material. He thinks this could be locally sourced plant-based fibres that are microscopically cross laminated with natural binders so that it could be sustainably made throughout the world (as the areas with the predicted highest population growth do not have sustainable timber supply). Although we can't implement this part of Green’s message on current projects, savings can be realised by ensuring architecture is driven by structure and follows the logic of the structure.

3. Collaborate!

In one of the panel discussions titled ‘Are We There Yet? Carbon, Construction & Credibility’, Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of Built by Nature advocated for moving to collaboration, not competition, as together we need to compete to save the planet.

We can only create smart timber buildings if we work together. If we do it well, our joint efforts will make a meaningful impact reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as creating buildings that are cost effective and good for people. Collaboration was the key theme running through the whole conference, and being a conference, it was a great place for people from across the industry to get together and share ideas. Benefits of collaboration include optimising for structural, construction and manufacturing efficiencies, integrating services, and ensuring the required acoustic and fire performance is achieved efficiently.

Another area of collaboration that can't be overlooked is with those who are going to be the end users of the spaces we are creating and ensuring their voices are contributing to the design. The challenge was put forward to the mass timber sector to build a new industry that is diverse and inclusive from the start — to be a catalyst for change in the entire building and construction industry.

Other snippets of wisdom

Many of the presentations covered advice that will be familiar to timber practitioners here such as:

  • Measure and value the reduced emissions associated with using timber;
  • Consider hybrid construction;
  • And, ensure you are designing for timber rather than trying to make a steel or concrete building out of timber.

“I’m an advocate for mass timber buildings, but I have seen more projects where timber was contemplated early in the design ultimately end up constructed out of steel and concrete due to the potential benefits of timber not be recognised. The International Mass Timber conference has refreshed my enthusiasm to change this statistic, I want to see many more smart timber projects across Aotearoa New Zealand — helping us reduce the emissions associated with our built environment.” says Lisa Oliver.