Mass timber: A solution to the affordable housing crisis
In and around cities like New York City or San Francisco, the lack of affordable housing, and in some cases shortage of housing, play an enormous role in aggravating the growing problem of homelessness and leave too many residents having to choose between rent, food or medicine.
In Seattle alone, since last year, there was a 46% increase in people living in their cars. In 2017, around 11 million Americans spent more than half their income on rent, leaving them vulnerable to either losing their housing or being forced to do without other essentials.
It’s clear we need a bold agenda on affordable housing. One way to tackle this problem is to better deploy modern home building technology: Specifically, mass timber. Compared with the concrete and steel typically used to create high-density apartment buildings, mass timber costs about 30 percent less and allows for accelerated construction schedules – both critical factors in meeting housing demand and creating more affordable housing stock.
In light of the Trump Administration’s tariffs on steel imports, building with wood has become about 40% cheaper and – a crucial factor when construction labor costs are considered – takes about half the time to build compared with steel and concrete.
Technology has eliminated many of the traditional impediments to mass timber construction: Fire safety and structural capacity. Mass timber construction using modern, organic chemicals that render the wood fireproof, mold proof, and termite proof , is slowly becoming not only an acceptable, but a superior alternative to concrete and steel.
The current shortage of housing has pushed median rent and home purchase prices in the United States to the highest levels in history. Between 2011 and 2016, the median asking rent for a new apartment increased by 27 percent, a nationwide average of $1,480 a month, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. A report in Kiplinger’s found that home prices in major metro areas increased nearly 10 percent between 2016 and 2017.
These escalating costs push families to the brink. What more American cities need is a sustainable, viable alternative to the traditional ways of attacking this problem. Using new-growth lumber changes the game in affordable multi-unit construction. While untreated wood in the construction phase has resulted in catastrophic fires, driving up insurance costs and causing many cities to ban large-scale mass timber construction, the new advanced green technology fire inhibitors alleviates that concern.
Replacing steel with mass timber can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20%, making it the more eco-friendly option. According to Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the cement industry itself accounts for 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions alone.
After a 20-year track record of success in Australia and Europe, so-called cross laminated timber (CLT) constriction, using wood building techniques, is finally catching on in North America. The tallest was recently built in Vancouver, Canada: an 18-story student residence hall for the University of British Colombia, and two new mass timber high-rises recently received approvals and permits in Portland, Oregon and British Colombia.
According to Bankrate’s financial security index survey, only 39% of Americans have enough in savings to address a $1,000 emergency. If so many Americans don’t have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency, how secure can they be maintaining their homes in the event of disaster?
Our lack of affordable housing strips American families of possibility and opportunity, but it does not have to be that way. If our elected officials want real solutions to the affordable housing crisis, they should be seriously considering mass timber construction.
Steve Conboy, a 45-year veteran of the construction industry, is chairman and general manager of M-Fire Suppression, Inc., a leader in the movement to protect wood and cross laminated timber (CLT)-built buildings from fires.