A focus on mass timber

By | 2021-03-30T09:18:06+00:00 March 30th, 2021|
International House by Lendlease at the Barangaroo Waterfront in Sydney is the MTFG ‘mascot’ and the catalyst for the formation of the group. Photo by MTFG

International House by Lendlease at the Barangaroo Waterfront in Sydney is the MTFG ‘mascot’ and the catalyst for the formation of the group. Photo by MTFG

By Leon Louw

David Elliott founded the Mass Timber Focus Group with the aim of informing and educating South Africans about the benefits of mass timber as a viable and sustainable building material. This was done in partnership with Franco Piva, an Italian wood engineer, and Chris Greensmith, who was the first local engineer to join the growing team.

David, how and why did you establish the Mass Timber Focus Group?

When visiting the Norsk Treteknisk Institutt in Norway in 2009, I was shown a presentation of timber trusses spanning more than 90m. At the time, I didn’t realise that timber could span this enormous distance, as it is difficult to achieve in concrete. Two years ago, I was in Sydney Australia, and saw Daramu House, a 7-storey timber building that is the sister of the well-known International House Sidney (IHS), developed by LendLease in the Barangaroo precinct. It intrigued me that all the columns, the floor plates, bracing and literally everything else was made from massive timber. This was the first time that I had seen a building framed with timber, which I later learned was termed ‘mass timber’. When I returned to South Africa, I realised that very few people in South Africa knew what I was talking about.

Timber, for South Africans, usually means timber-framing and windows, this is what South Africans are familiar with. Meanwhile, through my research I realised that there was a growing trend around the world towards using timber as a sustainable means of framing mid-rise buildings. Unfortunately, the South African market still needs to become aware of the benefits of using timber as a building material, and the fact that it is renewable and can be used for structural framing. The fact that timber can be used to replace concrete framing and floors is something that South Africans are not yet comfortable with. We made it one of the Mass Timber Focus Group’s aims to educate South Africans about mass timber.

What are the main challenges in South Africa when it comes to accepting timber as a building material?

The main hurdle in South Africa is awareness. Architects, for example, need to be totally comfortable with mass timber and what framing grids they can use, so they need a good understanding of the material. So, a few colleagues volunteered to join our voluntary group, to create online events for the local built environment professionals through awareness, education and partnering with international players. We recently delivered a number of presentations for the Green Building Council of South Africa, and were joined by Jamie Smylie from X-Lam, and Tessa Brunette from ARUP.

The conundrum in South Africa, in addition to the awareness, is that mass timber only becomes competitive in cost once you have a mature supply chain. This creates the typical chicken-and-egg scenario in economics, where supply increases to meet increasing demand, and therefore attracts investment and competition. This is investment is critical to develop a competitive supply chain, as budget is always a key factor for adoption of new technologies. Local forestry professionals have confirmed that local timber resources can be re-purposed from wood pellets and paper pulp to higher value Cross Laminated Timber or Glue Laminated Timber. The only way people will invest in these products, machinery, and technology, is if they know that there is a guaranteed and growing demand.

The founders of the Mass Timber Focus Group. Photos by MTFG

The founders of the Mass Timber Focus Group. Photos by MTFG

What is the mission of the group?

To accelerate the adoption of mass timber in South Africa by achieving four objectives as follows:

  1. Create awareness
  2. Deliver training
  3. Nurture international partnerships with locals
  4. Promote low-rise commercial pilot projects

There are already six volunteers in the group from various backgrounds across engineering, architecture, academia, and construction; namely Franco Piva, Chris Greensmith, Brett Chrystal, Emma Ayesu-Koranteng, and myself.

When you talk about mass timber, what exactly are you referring to?

Mass timber is an abbreviation for massive timber, and is the collective name for a selection of engineered wood products that are used for the structural framing of buildings. Glulam is already available in South Africa in standard SABS sizes, but these glulam elements are much heavier. They are posts, beams, and floor plates. The latter is called Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and has a few variations on the theme using nails or dowels. These floor plates can also be Laminated Veneered Lumber (LVL), which is basically plywood on steroids, with each lamellas being about 3mm thick. This has been used for many decades, and is most commonly used for floors in the form of a cassette.

A CLT panel consists of uneven layers of kiln-dried timber, with the outer layers spanning the main axis, which is bonded with structural adhesives and pressed pneumatically or hydraulically to form a solid, dimensionally stable, rectangular panel. These can vary in size, but are typically 2.4 x 12m.

“Through my research I realised that there was a growing trend around the world towards using timber as a sustainable means of framing mid-rise buildings. Unfortunately, the South African market still needs to become aware of the benefits of using timber as a building material.”

Mass Timber is more efficient than solid timber, as it is manufactured by gluing smaller bits of timber together. Because of the inherent strengths of glue laminated timber, manufacturers do not have to use hardwoods, and can use both SA Pine and Eucalyptus.

Has the focus group had some interaction with government and the timber industry at all?

Yes, we were invited to work with the DTI’s Demand Creation Working Group, and one of our members, Fanie van der Westhuyzen is contributing, along with Emma Ayesu-Koranteng on a similar forum. We’ve also being working with the Green Building Council who asked us to do a webinar for their members. We are a neutral platform and will therefore be working with all parties across the supply chain, from suppliers to manufacturers, as well as the established industry bodies, and government. The local interest has been remarkable, and on LinkedIn, our following quickly grew to over a 1 000. A significant portion of our followers are South Africans.

Are South Africans ready for the timber industry?

Yes, I do think they are, but it is a broad question. They are not ready in terms of experience or philosophically, as this is a culture shift away from masonry and concreate structures for mid-rise buildings. The sustainability aspect of timber in a post-Covid-19 world is a no-brainer as it is the only renewable material, which is sourced from certified plantations. Therefore, I believe that now is the time for training locals and encouraging pilot projects.

Where are the opportunities for timber in South Africa?

I see two sectors where there are opportunities. One is mid-rise commercial buildings and the other is bulk residential buildings like student housing or apartments. I think this is where the opportunities are, and it seems typical throughout the world.

Could timber be the answer to South Africa’s mass housing deficit?

I do think it can be applied as a hybrid technology, as you are talking about quite significant volumes of wood, which is not expensive, but is comparatively more than timber-framing. However, Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL), could prove to be the answer to the mass housing crisis, but again as a hybrid technology.

When do you think it will dawn on South Africans that timber is a great building material?

I’m hoping that by 2025 each province in South Africa will have at least one mass timber building. Once there are pilot projects in the country, we will start seeing rapid adoption, as tenants are willing to pay a premium for carbon neutral or negative. We have not yet sat around a table with the foresters like Sappi and York Timbers, as we all have day jobs, but we are looking forward to working with them to get buy-in to our mission to accelerate the adoption of Mass Timber in SA.