Steel vs. Mass Timber: Which Is Best for Construction?

Wood and steel are both common materials used in construction. Until relatively recently, steel and concrete were practically the only realistic choices for many types of buildings. Now, mass timber is revolutionizing the industry in a variety of ways. Here’s how.

What Is Mass Timber?
A single piece of wood is not generally considered to be particularly strong or supportive. Place many pieces together, though, and it can be as strong as steel. Mass timber, sometimes called “cross-laminated timber,” involves gluing layers of wood in a specific pattern. This process creates panels that can be as much as 6” thick. The result is a construction material that is extremely durable and easier to install. When used with other supplies like precast concrete forms, mass timber can cut down time for construction, which saves labor costs.

How Does Mass Timber Compare to Steel?
Mass timber is still a relatively new innovation, having started only a few decades ago in Europe. Of course, many people prefer to rely on steel because it is familiar and has a proven record of durability. As more construction professionals come to see mass timber’s benefits, people may conclude that the two materials are fairly well-matched in different ways. Compared to steel, mass timber is:

These potential benefits have enticed builders worldwide to continue expanding their use of mass timber in larger buildings.

Is Mass Timber More Sustainable Than Concrete?
Many proponents say that mass timber is undeniably a more-sustainable alternative to steel and concrete. However, experts believe that the technology is too new to be sure. As part of the growth process, trees absorb carbon dioxide from their environment. This acts as a carbon sink that remains in place as long as the lumber is still in use. If manufacturers take care to source their wood from sustainably-managed forests, this could provide a renewable source of construction materials for a variety of purposes.

The trickiest part of this carbon equation involves what happens to the mass timber after demolition. In the U.S. in particular, most buildings that use mass timber are too new to be taken down. After they are, decomposition can release that carbon absorbed by the tree during growth. Prompt reuse might slow that down. Experts claim that if advocates want to emphasize the sustainability of mass timber, they need to make sure that each stage of the construction life cycle keeps that in mind.

How Can Mass Timber and Steel Improve Construction?
Even if you continue to use steel in a variety of applications for your construction projects, the addition of mass timber into the building process offers versatility. In fact, many buildings that rely on mass timber will use steel for some aspects, such as a steel core or connectors. It’s important to look at the two not as mutually exclusive but as competing options.

In the current climate of project backlogs and labor shortages, efficiency is key. Although much of mass timber’s benefits are dependent on a number of factors, its ability to make construction faster seems sure. If it allows you to provide a quality, durable product in less time, you will have more opportunities and funds for other projects.

Building in the construction field may involve increasing reliance on newer innovations like mass timber. The more you know, the easier it is to decide which materials will be best for your contracting business projects. To learn more about becoming a contractor, contact CSLS today!