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5 steps to using mass timber in multifamily housing

5 steps to using mass timber in multifamily housing

A design-assist approach can provide the most effective delivery method for multifamily housing projects using mass timber as the primary building element.

Terrace House condominiums, Vancouver, B.C., mass timber residences designed by Shigeru Ban Architects.
Terrace House condominiums, Vancouver, B.C., mass timber residences designed by Shigeru Ban Architects.

The use of mass timber, such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and glue laminated timber (GLT) panels, is gaining interest among architects, interior designers, contractors, structural engineers, and real estate developers in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia. Mass timber is particularly appropriate for the multifamily sector: apartment and condominium residences, senior living, and student housing.

Multifamily project teams should consider adopting a 5-point design-assist approach as a way to achieve the aesthetic, budgetary, financial, and marketing goals of the developer.

1. Establish a holistic team to achieve the developer’s budget goals.

The design-assist approach, such as the one we use at Mass Timber Services, brings together multiple trades and consultants early on in the preconstruction process. It's crucial for the entity leading the design-assist initiative to choose like-minded, passionate, dedicated AEC professionals from firms who share the greater mission: to use mass timber to reduce carbon emissions, save energy, and combat climate change, while achieving a beautiful, highly functional multifamily residences that meet the business needs of the developer and the "human" needs of the occupants.

Initial meetings must clearly identify the scope of the project and determine trade-specific details needed to ensure the right product with the right amenities is being built for the market.

A holistic team approach is crucial to success
Source: Mass Timber Services


Don't rush to pick your team members. It's much more important to pick the right ones than it is to pick them quickly, as the information exchange between the trades and consultants impacts each of them. Cross-trade communication and strategic planning optimize timelines and can ultimately save money.

For mass timber design-assist multifamily projects, it is important to choose a facilitator firm with a track record in the use of mass timber – one that understands the manufacturing, engineering, design, and construction management aspects of such a project and has a global perspective on sourcing the right mass timber materials for the specific job.

2. Use a preconstruction approach to estimate construction costs and analyze your building system.

Integrating mass timber building systems is an intelligent process. Preconstruction proposals are prepared after concept development and engineering modeling, to provide cost and schedule certainty for the projects. Both the ultimate purpose of the residential building and building codes need to be considered when determining best building materials, building strategy, and building systems.

In the initial stages of the project, multifamily developers will typically use their data from previous development projects, attempting to account for similarities and differences in their estimate. However, due to constantly changing economic factors, it can be difficult to determine an exact budget, at least at first. Each specialty project team member on the project must provide the most accurate, current market pricing which aligns everyone toward an agreed upon budget.

Preconstruction proposals include the detailed quantity take off, engineeing review, preparation of building specifications, duration for erections of the structure, logistical planning suggestions, and schedules.

The following chart provides a schematic visualization of a full-service design and product offering.

Design-assist and construction phase services
Design-assist and construction phase services. Source: Mass Timber Services

3. Employ automation in design for cost efficiency.

The automation process in mass timber design speeds up delivery of the entire building and provides top-quality materials, allowing prefabrication at the highest levels of quality and accuracy.

Flat pack standardization and modular thinking reduce costs by taking advantage of CNC programming and the factory-automated environment. Materials are first harvested and dried in the kiln before the lamination process. In the fabrication phase, detailed shop and production drawings, defining sizing and materials, are converted to machine language. The building arrives in containers with components mapped for just-in-time installation and connector assembly on site.

Fabrication of mass timber components and installation of connectors
Fabrication of mass timber components and preinstalled connectors. Angle cuts require top-level equipment to get them right. Source: Mass Timber Services

Delivering the panels to the job site requires skill, knowledge, and experience. Be sure to use a mass timber supplier with a proven record of logistical excellence.

Construction support - Logistics
CLT panels have predrilled holes for easy and accurate connection on site. Timber beams are protected with peel-and-stick layers to keep out moisture. Just-in-time delivery is crucial, since crane time for lifting the panels into place can be costly. Source: Mass Timber Services

4. Consider the multipurpose use of engineered wood panel products.

The use of prefabricated mass timber walls, floors, roofs, and shear walls and interior wood panels purposes the materials for dual structural and decorative uses. Interior walls, partitions, and ceiling softwood (solid core) multi-ply panels – which are 3-layer version of CLT – can replace drywall on walls, which eliminates the need for mudding, sanding, and multiple paint applications.

Known as Nano CLT, these laminated panels range in cost from $3-10 per square foot depending on wood species selected. Used as encapsulation material for less appealing structural surfaces, this product can enhance the "face" or "look" of a building – in a lobby, as an accent wall, in a lounge area, in an apartment or condominium unit, or in an external soffit.

Nano CLT from Mass Timber Services
Nano CLT comes in 3-ply and 5-ply configurations and in panel sizes up to 6X15 feet. The panels can replace drywall in multifamily projects, saving time and making for a cleaner job. Source: Mass Timber Services

Adding finishing touches through the use of decorative engineered wood enhances the biophilic benefits of a multifamily residential, thereby increasing the value of the space.

Nano CLT solid core structural panels
Nano CLT solid core structural panels can be used for load-bearing elements or as acoustical or aesthetic touches. Source: Mass Timber Services

5. Incorporate biophilic architecture into your mass timber project.

Biophilia is emerging as an essential element in new builds, exhalting high-performance design into the forefront of 21st-century building.

Architectural opportunities now center nature in design with human-made environments where occupants experience improvements in stress levels, productivity, creativity, and overall wellness.

Japanese architect Shingeru Ban has been hailed as a 21st-century innovator in architecture and design by Time magazine.

Here are two of his designs that incorporate mass timber and thereby enhance the biophilic benefit to occupants.

Haesly Hamlet, Yeoju, South Korea

Haezley Hamlet - Shigeru Ban Architects
Haesly Hamlet, Yeoju, South Korea, incorporates the Grand Hall, a Learning Center, condominiums, and a recreation center. Designed by Shigeru Ban Architects and Gansam Architects + Partners. PHOTOS: © Jiun Yu

ZEN Wellness SEIWEI, Awaji, Hyogo, Japan


Zen Wellness SEINEI 1 - Shigeru Ban Architects
ZEN Wellness SEINEI is located on the island of Awaji, in Japan. ALL PHOTOS: © Shigeru Ban Architects
Zen Wellness SEINEI 2 - Shigeru Ban ArchitectsZen Wellness SEINEI 3 - Shigeru Ban Architects



The Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI), which is supported by the National Science Foundation, is conducting a study of the seismic resilience of mass timber solutions for tall buildings. A 10-story building with mass timber rocking walls is under construction on the comprehensive shake table at the University of California, San Diego.

The study will test the building's resilience to assure that nonstructural components sustain minimal damage or are easily repairable.

UCSD mass timber shake test
AEC professionals attending BD+C's ProConnect event visit the UC San Diego shake test site with the author (at right).


Tony Mammone (tony@masstimberservices.com) is Vice President, Client Relations | Sustainable Solutions at Mass Timber Services, a supplier of mass timber products and services, based in Calgary, Alb. 

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