Iain Macdonald on how Tallwood Design Institute accelerates use of solid wood in high-rise construction
Ian MacDonald, director of the Tallwood Design Institute, is confident that if the 20th century was the century of concrete and steel, then the 21st century will be the century of wood.

Iain Macdonald on how Tallwood Design Institute accelerates use of solid wood in high-rise construction

Iain Macdonald on how Tallwood Design Institute accelerates use of solid wood in high-rise construction

Photo: Iain Macdonald, Director of the Tallwood Design Institute

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that people are becoming much more accustomed to telecommuting. This could lead to a downturn in the office and commercial sectors of the construction market and reduced investment in office buildings. However, there are other sectors that will drive the use of mass timber in construction. Sustainability has become a huge incentive for developers. Iain Macdonald, the director of the Tallwood Design Institute, is sure that if the 20th century was the age of concrete and steel, then the 21st century will be the age of wood.


Lesprom Network: Tallwood Design Institute (TDI) is a unique institution of its kind, there is no other similar institution in the world?

Iain Macdonald: There are some similar institutions. But I think what makes us unique is that we're quite a successful partnership between two universities. And within those universities, there are three disciplines involved; at Oregon State University there is the College of Forestry and the College of Engineering, covering wood science and technology, forestry, civil engineering and construction management. And then at the University of Oregon there is a Department of Architecture with a formidable reputation in sustainable design, and all of these disciplines are actively collaborating on research and education. There are other organizations, in other parts of the world, doing similar research, and similar education. But I don't think anyone has exactly this structure or breadth. 

Lesprom Network: How was it created? 

Iain Macdonald: TDI was the brainchild of Thomas Maness, the former dean of OSU’s College of Forestry. He was an incredibly visionary guy, who sadly passed away in 2018 after a long illness. There was traditionally a kind of disconnect, and to some extent friction, between the forest professionals who focus on conservation and forest biology, and others whose mandate is harvesting and forest engineering. And there was tension between conservationists and those who wanted to derive their livelihoods from timber. Thomas saw a way to connect the two, and also make buildings more sustainable, by creating an institute that is focused on using wood construction to substitute for concrete and steel, which are more energy-intensive. And in doing so, to help to promote sustainable forest management so we have exemplary forestry practices, and to create jobs in rural communities through mass timber manufacturing. That was Tom’s vision, and he started working toward it around 2013. The Tallwood Design Institute has been around since 2015, though we didn't take our current name until the beginning of 2017.

Lesprom Network: What does the institute do, what are its objectives?

Iain Macdonald: Our objectives are to contribute to the science around sustainable timber structures. We want to do research that will open up appropriate and responsible ways to use wood in larger and taller buildings. So that means we have to do rigorous science around sustainability, and we have to study and innovate ways to optimize the performance of wood related to things like fire, earthquake resilience, durability, and good design. We also investigate the best ways to engineer wood components, connect them together, and design buildings as high-performing systems. Overall we’re looking at how mass timber can contribute to the sustainability of the built environment and also create new markets for wood products. We want to do that in an objective science-based way. We’re not a lobbying organization, we very much take a science-based approach. 

 Lesprom Network: What training programs, online courses are there? 

Iain Macdonald: We’re developing several courses that will be both online and what we call ‘blended learning' which means partially online, partially face-to-face. We have introductory learning courses on mass timber and a course just being completed on mass timber construction. We are developing courses on quality control and quality management in mass timber manufacturing. Also important is computer-aided-design and computer-aided manufacturing of mass timber components. So we’re trying to teach skills that don’t currently exist, or are not currently common, in the forest products industry.  

Lesprom Network:  What kind of research are you doing? 

Iain Macdonald: We’re doing a very wide range of research. Much of it is on some of the areas I just talked about; fire safety, seismic resilience, moisture-related, durability, life cycle analysis of wood buildings, energy efficiency of wood buildings. And then various structural engineering topics, looking at connectors, fasteners, using post-tensioning to increase seismic resilience, etc. 

We are very active in structural testing. There is also growing demand for data on acoustic performance, and as a result our partners at the University of Oregon are building a dedicated acoustic laboratory. One project that's coming up soon that is quite exciting, because of its size, is the structural testing of a three-story wood building in our new Emmerson Laboratory. We're going to attach hydraulic actuators to the structure and simulate earthquake motion, to test three different kinds of seismic protection systems which we are calling spines.

Lesprom Network: Who are the bearers of knowledge and experience? How is knowledge transferred between the institute and its partners?

Iain Macdonald: We work with around 30 different professors in those three colleges I mentioned. We’re doing a lot of interdisciplinary research. It's not just about architecture, it's not just about timber engineering, it's not all wood technology. It's about people from all of those different disciplines working together on projects. I think that results in a more rich exchange of knowledge and more meaningful projects and outcomes.

Lesprom Network: What are the benefits of being located in Oregon? 

Iain Macdonald: The major advantage is that Oregon is the biggest timber producing region in the United States. It is the biggest center of lumber production and of plywood production. The forest industry is traditionally very important to the Oregon state in terms of jobs and the economy. And forests are really important to the state in terms of conservation and recreation.  Oregonians love to get out, hike and camp and enjoy the outdoors. It makes it a good testing ground for the kind of work that we are doing, because people really value their pristine forests and forest-based environments. A lot of people also depend on forests for their livelihoods, so we need to address and support both of those stakeholder groups. If we can do it in Oregon, the chances are that we can provide useful lessons to other parts of the country too.

Lesprom Network: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the institute?  

Iain Macdonald: Like many universities around the world we had to temporarily shut down our research laboratories, and classes were switched online. We experienced some delays to the physical research that we do. We have a brand-new well-equipped laboratory just coming onstream, and we had to put a lot of projects on hold. So now our technical team is working very hard to catch up. We are resuming activity now, but we have very specific rules around how many people can go in the lab, the personal protection equipment they need to have, and the rules they need to follow. We have to be much more cautious. In the past we have run a design build workshop that was teaching people how to design a small timber structure, take the design into computer-aided-design software, use a CNC machine to cut the parts, and then build the structure.  It’s a really useful, intensive learning experience, but it's very difficult to do while maintaining COVID safety protocols. Hopefully we'll get back to doing smaller versions of those kinds of courses, but for now we're pausing those kinds of things. But we have managed to use the extra time to push ahead with our online learning development. We took a slight delay on the physical research, but then we redirected some of our staff resources to speed up creation of e-learning courses.

Lesprom Network: What technologies of timber construction are the most promising?

Iain Macdonald: I think we're just really at the beginning in terms of the technologies. There are lots of things that you have to be very careful about if you are making mass timber products; temperatures, pressing time, moisture content etc. CNC technology, which is used to fabricate panels and beams, is very precise, and it takes time for people to learn how to efficiently program the machines. But mass timber is not a very complex technology besides these things, essentially it's layering pieces of wood together using glue and pressure. So I think there's lots of room for further product development and innovation. We had one company in Oregon that started to work with OSU on prototyping and testing back in 2016. They were a manufacturer of plywood and decided they could make a mass timber panel using plywood veneers rather than the lumber used in cross-laminated timber. We did various testing for them and the results were very promising: ultimately they invested around $40M in a large new factory in Oregon. Now Freres Lumber Company are the first manufacturer in the world to make mass plywood panels, which have some advantages over cross laminated timber panels in terms of the strength-to-weight ratio. Beyond the products themselves, I think there is lots of room for innovation on connectors and seismic systems, and on panelized and modular building systems that can be rapidly assembled. So there's a range of exciting things that I think are going to develop in the next few years.

Lesprom Network: Is wood a more design-friendly material than concrete and cement?

Iain Macdonald: It really depends on the application. One of the major advantages of wood is its strength-to-weight ratio, meaning you can design buildings with lighter foundations. You can build in areas where there are conditions that would not allow for large buildings to be made from cement or steel, such as on soft soils. The prefabrication of mass timber leads to advantages in terms of speed of construction. And there are some trade-offs as well, because you need to spend more time in the pre-construction planning process. To have a successful project that's cost-effective, the different players in the design and construction team - architects, engineers, the construction company and the subcontractors -  all have to work together very closely and plan very carefully. Before the building is constructed, they spend more time doing that, but then the construction process itself can be shorter. That's where a lot of cost can be avoided in terms of equipment rental, insurance premiums, financing and all of that. Ultimately, with the sustainability advantages added in, a lot of designers are very excited about wood. I think the 20th century was really the age of concrete and steel, and the 21st century is going to be the age of wood.

Lesprom Network: How do you see the future of wood housing construction in the U.S.? 

Iain Macdonald: Well, I think that because of COVID-19 there's going to be some uncertainty in the market  for a while, because there will be investors that are unwilling to take added risk. The office and commercial sector of the construction market might experience a slowdown because people are working from home, and that may have some impacts on future investment in office buildings, for example. But I think other companies, other sectors, are going to propel the market forward, because sustainability is a huge driver among developers. A lot of the interest they have in mass timber is driven by their interest in enhanced sustainability. And of course for levels of government - cities, states, federal government - there are greenhouse gas reduction targets that have been put in place, and they have a mandate to work towards those. Using wood is a great way to reduce the embodied energy of a building, which immediately reduces the greenhouse gas footprint. So I think the future looks very good. We're seeing the tech sector -  Google, Sidewalk Labs, Facebook, Microsoft -  looking at or already investing in mass timber buildings. Facebook is looking at data centers using mass timber. Sustainability is not always the main driver, there are also aesthetics and cost. We’re seeing examples where you can achieve lower overall project costs using wood, if you design efficiently and pay attention to those pre-construction decisions and integrated project planning that I mentioned earlier. 

Lesprom Network:  How fast will the share of wooden houses in high-rise construction increase? 

Iain Macdonald: I wouldn’t want to give you exact numbers, because there have been various different estimates but no real consistent forecast in terms of numbers of buildings.  We are seeing very rapid growth however. I think there are something like 750 mass timber buildings, either completed, under construction or in the design phase, in the United States. That's really a different picture from five years ago, when we had probably less than ten. One of the main barriers right now is the lack of familiarity at various levels among developers, insurance companies, architects, engineers, and construction firms. As they become more familiar with mass timber best practices, the price premiums that are being charged because of perceived additional risk will fall away. We're going to see even more cost-competitiveness. Right now a lot of the mass timber buildings going up around the country and are being designed, engineered and built by the same few firms. As we expand the knowledge base and train more people, this whole technology is going to get way more competitive.

Photo: Tallwood Design Institute