The COVID-19 pandemic has moved the importance of air quality to the front of the line in office settings.
How Mass Timber is Becoming a New Reality in Interior Design
The benefits of mass timber over synthetic materials in interior design and construction.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that mass timber (massive timber) is the least desirable of all design and construction materials from a sustainability standpoint. However, more and more research is suggesting that aside from its aesthetic quality, biophilic benefits, and contribution towards air quality, mass timber is actually a more sustainable option than artificial materials, which have dominated the market in the last few decades. Is wood set to make a comeback? And is it really as good as it sounds?
What’s the Deal with Mass Timber?
Mass timber is the general term for engineered wood. There are a few members of the family: glue-laminated (Glulam) timber, cross-laminated timber (CLT), dowel-laminated timber (DLT), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), nail-laminated timber (NLT), and parallel strand lumber (PSL). It is granted its strength through layering odd numbers of sheets of wood perpendicularly.
CLT and its relatives are pieced together, assembled, and disassembled similarly to a puzzle. This dramatically decreases the time and cost-efficiency of a project, as the pieces are often fabricated in the factory rather than on-site. It also helps reduce waste -- any excess wood can be reused in another part of the structure or interior finishings.
Decorative beams, feature walls, and paneling for stairwells are just some of the wonderful aesthetic creations we have seen with this versatile material. As an added value, in interior design, mass timber can enhance air quality, employee well-being, and sustainable practices.
Wait, Wood is Sustainable?
You heard right. It may seem counterintuitive, but timber sourced from sustainable forests actually has less of an impact on the environment than its artificial counterparts that we have been using in design and construction for the last few decades. Synthetic material industries account for around 13% of annual greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. By using mass timber for interior finishings and structures, we leverage the carbon sequestering abilities of a particular space and can actually mitigate the carbon footprint marked by the manufacturing process.
This article suggests that between 14% and 31% of the world’s carbon emissions can be avoided by harvesting wood as opposed to manufacturing artificial material. Wood traps and stores carbon, so when that wood is engineered, the carbon remains inside it unless the building rots or burns, whereas producing synthetic interiors only add to GHG emissions.
“I know it’s counter-intuitive, but forest-product demand can actually lead to more forests,” says Edie Sonne Hall, Founder and Principal of Three Trees Consulting, in a 2021 interview with Think Wood (Think Wood). She says that in areas where there is a higher demand for timber products, there is actually less deforestation. With an increase in demand, we will see an increase in supply, due to incentives to invest in forestation. Sustainability is a particularly enticing benefit to using mass timber, but it is not the only one.
Is Mass Timber as Beneficial to Well-Being as Other Materials?
When it comes to interior design, mass timber products are taking a strong lead in the industry. The trend towards sterile concrete is tapering off in favor of more natural materials. The shift towards bringing the outdoors indoors has never been more relevant -- humans feel the need to be closer to nature and our productivity and wellbeing soar as a result, particularly in high-stress environments such as the workplace.
There are many biophilic properties of timber products, which can come under the umbrella term of increased comfort. When we spend a third or more of our days at the office, air quality is paramount to our wellbeing. Wood is naturally hypoallergenic and increases air quality due to its carbon-sequestering abilities. Fewer artificial materials and more of those that contain wooden elements, such as Dauphin’s wood-base products, are a sure-fire way to increase the biophilic properties of our workplaces and the health of their occupants.
Listen up -- acoustics could pose a problem
Acoustics is another consideration. Wood absorbs sound, which promotes an environment of peace and tranquility, also important in reducing stress levels in potentially chaotic environments such as the workplace or an educational environment. However, the acoustic performance of mass timber can be lower than that of artificial materials, in part, due to its lightweight nature. With that said, designers can still use mass timber and have three options for optimizing its sound-attenuating properties according to this paper, published in WoodWorks, on 2018:
- Add mass
- Add noise barriers
- Add decouplers
More mass typically means less noise. Lightweight CLT, for example, is favored in terms of its seismic durability, but the reduction in mass compared to other materials makes it slightly more conducive to noise. Designers can use gypsum-based cladding or concrete, but of course, in such cases, the sustainability aspect is impaired.
Noise barriers such as insulation can be sourced more sustainably, but again, costs should be factored in, and decouplers -- which prevent noise from traveling through finish-to-structure-to-finish, may require less volume of cladding and could be as effective. This is of greater relevance during the construction process, but it is key to remember that timber furnishings -- as opposed to structures -- need little consideration with regard to noise attenuation.
If noise reduction is of most importance in your working space, Dauphin’s Bosse Room-in-Room provides an easy to assemble, cost effective, structure that cancels out sound, providing a private space for focused work.
Feeling the heat
Thermal comfort models, such as ASHRAE-55, determine the conditions for optimal thermal comfort for humans. Designers should research the materials carefully in order to ensure that the materials they use comply with these conditions. Research suggests that the thermal conditions associated with mass timber may be sub-optimal, but as long as other design factors are taken into account, this doesn’t mean the end for mass timber structures, feature decorations, or furnishings.
One of the great things about mass timber is its resistance to fire. Multilayers of engineered wood are actually extremely difficult to ignite, and the numerous fire safety checks carried out on CLT show that it burns in a predictable way, on the outside, allowing the structural integrity to remain intact. On the other hand, the way steel reacts to fire is invariably unpredictable; it can buckle, lose strength, and melt. Concrete structures and finishings, while efficient at resisting fire, have an enormous carbon footprint. After weighing up the pros and cons of each, mass timber stands in good stead.
What does this mean for us?
Mass timber is making a comeback; its contribution towards sustainability and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are noteworthy, given the profound effect this could have on our planet and the humans inhabiting it. In the same vein, schools and offices, where we spend the majority of our time, can deeply affect our wellbeing, and mass timber has been proven to offer biophilic benefits -- we feel calmer when we are in touch with nature.
Much more than a roof over our heads, these spaces are a sanctuary that influences our wellbeing. Much more than a place to set our computers, when chosen carefully, our office furnishings can even influence our productivity. Mass timber has shown, again and again, that leveraging nature can have monumental effects on us -- in our home, our working space, and in our future.
Chadwick Dearing Oliver, Nedal T. Nassar, Bruce R. Lippke & James B. McCarter (2014) Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation With Wood and Forests, Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 33:3, 248-275, DOI: 10.1080/10549811.2013.839386
www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10549811.2013.839386 Accessed 06/26/2021
England, Richard. “Wood and Wellbeing: The Biophilic Benefits of Solid Wood Furniture:” Glencairn Furniture, 20 November 2020 www.glencairnfurniture.co.uk/blog/wood-amp-wellbeing-the-biophilic-benefits-of-solid-wood-furniture
Mangan, Neil. “Cross Laminated Timber- Lighter than Steel but just as Strong?” LinkedIn, 9 February 2018 www.linkedin.com/pulse/cross-laminated-timber-lighter-than-steel-just-strong-neil-mangan/
Mayberry, Blake. “Fire - How it Affects Structural Steel Framing.” Vertex, 22 February 2018 www.vertexeng.com/insights/fire-how-it-affects-structural-steel-framing/
McLain, Richard “Acoustics and Mass Timber: Room to Room Noise Control.” WoodWorks, www.woodworks.org/wp-content/uploads/wood_solution_paper-MASS-TIMBER-ACOUSTICS.pdf Accessed 06/26/2021
Robbins, Jim. “As Mass Timber Takes Off, How Green Is This New Building Material?” Yale Environment 360, 9 April 2019
Roberts, David. “The Hottest New Thing in Sustainable Building is, uh, Wood.” Vox, 15 January 2020 www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/1/15/21058051/climate-change-building-materials-mass-timber-cross-laminated-clt
Think Wood www.thinkwood.com/mass-timber Accessed 06/27/2021
Think Wood https://www.thinkwood.com/blog/10-questions-with-sustainable-forestry-expert-dr-edie-sonne-hall Accessed 06/30/2021
Vinoski, Jim. “Is Mass Timber The Path To Sustainable Construction?” Forbes, 20 December 2019