Justin Milne, a lead fire protection engineer with WSP, has provided code consulting services evaluating heavy timber wood assemblies demonstrating fire-resistivity to local jurisdictions. While engineered mass timber is a more promising building solution for heavy timber and historical wood frame construction from a fire safety perspective, additional work is needed so that building owners and occupants better understand how fire risks are managed.
Milne is confident in the potential for mass timber construction to become the fire safety preference for all wood frame building construction with the potential to replace steel and concrete.
“People tend to be apprehensive when they hear about wood being the dominant construction material in a 10- or 15-story building,” he said. “But used properly, mass timber has been shown to be a durable material with minimal fire risk. There has even been testing illustrating that mass timber can perform well under blast conditions – a major concern since the events of 9/11 in the high-rise market.”
Additional fire safety research could help satisfy the concerns of officials in jurisdictions that limit mass timber buildings to heights significantly lower than the 270 feet allowed by code.
“New York City is one of the most stringent,” Udilovich said. “Today, you can only build 65-foot-high structures in mass timber. In an upcoming code change that will go into effect in November, that height restriction will increase to 85 feet, though this is not final and it is expected that eventually, the city will follow the recently updated international building code provisions.”
Milne, Benichou and Udilovich also support the research being done by industry bodies on the fire safety of metal connectors commonly used in mass timber construction. And they’re eagerly anticipating the results of an earthquake test on a full-scale 10-story mass timber building this summer in a research effort sponsored by the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure TallWood project and the University of California-San Diego.
From resolving the concerns of officials like those in New York to reliably quantifying GHG benefits, a great deal of work remains before the potential of mass timber construction will be fully realized. “But it is showing great promise and is developing into a very exciting and practical trend in sustainable construction,” Benichou said.
Exploring the sustainable opportunities of mass timber construction aligns with WSP’s net zero commitment to reduce and eliminate embodied carbon as a signatory to the Structural Engineering Institute’s SE 2050 Commitment Program. To view the firm’s Embodied Carbon Action Plan, click here.
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