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While many in the construction industry are aiming for net-zero-carbon concrete by 2050, another trend in sustainable building has also grown in popularity: Because its emissions aren鈥檛 as well calculated like those of concrete or steel construction, a number of builders and designers view it as a more eco-friendly and less carbon-intensive form of building material. What鈥檚 more, due to it being made of wood, mass timber is even able to sequester carbon.

All of which makes it seem like the most ideal building material out there with the demand for sustainable construction on the rise. However, it鈥檚 not. Like any building material, mass timber has its own downsides.

But if both mass timber and concrete have their pros and cons, how do you decide which building material is right for your project?

Four columns of coins are stacked in a row, with the one on the left being the smallest stack and the one on the right being the largest. Behind them is a city skyline with the sun shining across it from the left.

A Big Factor in This Decision Will Be Cost

No matter what anyone thinks of mass timber or concrete, the cost of either will play a big role for which gets picked. Unfortunately, comparing the two is a tricky process. After all, the price for any building material will always vary depending on the region you鈥檙e in.

Some Signs Suggest Mass Timber May Be a More Expensive Venture

An example of this can be seen in one study conducted by the . It noted that the cost of mass timber construction could be 6.43% higher than concrete construction. The researchers attributed this excess in cost to a higher rate of change orders. But that鈥檚 not the only reason. Another study compared the total life cycle cost of mass timber to concrete and found that it had much higher front-end costs. In fact, . The two biggest causes for this were the mass timber building鈥檚 construction and utility costs.

Still, mass timber could offer some potential cost-saving measures of its own. At least one study shows that it could provide a productivity gain. Despite its noting that mass timber construction does still require more time during the designing phase of a structure, the study also mentioned that it required 30% less construction time. There are a number of reasons for this, including simplified and reduced deliveries and fewer trades on-site.

So if you don鈥檛 mind higher front-end costs with a potential for a productivity gain, mass timber might be worth considering.

By Contrast, Concrete Construction May Be More Cost-Effective

If you want to keep your construction costs at a more appealing rate and still have the possibility of expediting your work, concrete will be the better bet. That is likely due to how widespread concrete is. As the second-most consumed material throughout the world, it comes with more professional acceptance and variety. That makes it less costly to acquire and easier to modify for quicker, better building.

An aerial view of Lincoln Park in Chicago shows bodies of water to the left and groups of beatiful green and yellow trees separated by buildings and strips of pavement, which leads to the Chicago skyline in the background.

Another Factor Will Be the Environmental Impact

Cost isn鈥檛 the only big deciding factor in a building material鈥檚 selection of course. With the increase in demand for sustainable, climate-resilient buildings, the construction industry has now put an almost equal amount of importance on the environmental impact of a material.

Mass Timber Is Not as Eco-Friendly as Many Make It Out to Be

Many feel that mass timber is the better option when it comes to sustainable construction. But doing a thorough comparison of just how much impact mass timber has to concrete is not as simple as it seems. For one, the industry is still looking into the mass timber life cycle. There are no clear answers on just how well it performs yet. It doesn鈥檛 help that international guidelines are when it comes to letting countries define activities when calculating carbon emissions for the forestry sector. In some cases, that鈥檚 led to many megatonnes of uncounted carbon emissions in regions like Canada and millions of tonnes in regions . And what鈥檚 more, mass timber construction has its own sustainability threats to worry about.

It鈥檚 true that it doesn鈥檛 make use of cement like concrete, which is a very carbon-intense material. And it鈥檚 also true that trees are able to absorb and store CO2 emissions, which is also a when they become timber.

But encouraging builders to take advantage of either benefit could very well pose a much greater carbon concern in the end. All it takes to see why is to look at the . It鈥檚 a large-scale industry there that has only increased its logging. That will likely increase further as demand for it grows, and that in turn will promote the planting of fast-growing trees. It doesn鈥檛 sound so bad until you consider the end result of this, which is a biological desert. With the area being frequently logged, there is no real room for other life to flourish there, leading to a very . Even worse, this logging process can still be a heavy carbon emitter. Oregon鈥檚 own forest products industry is already the largest source of CO2 emissions in the area.

And Concrete Doesn鈥檛 Have to Be So Carbon-Heavy

Concrete, as alluded to earlier, is also not great when it comes to carbon emissions. It鈥檚 why so many are trying to see if materials like mass timber will turn out to be a better alternative.

But people often forget that concrete is versatile. There are many ways to reduce its lifetime carbon footprint. Some of which include the following:

  • Replacing the use of petroleum-based membranes with non-toxic waterproofing admixtures
  • Using aggregates of at least 20 mm (0.79 in) in size to reduce the amount of cement used
  • Increasing concrete durability without extra cement or toxic silica dust via Hard-Cem
  • Substituting cement clinker with cementitious materials to lower carbon emissions

This isn鈥檛 an exhaustive list, but it shows that concrete doesn鈥檛 have to be seen as a negative for sustainable construction. It just needs to be handled with best green practices in mind.

An Asian man in a white shirt sits at a pale brown table with a see-through glass window behind him that shows a yellow-and-gray striped arrow on a wall pointing to the left. The man is holding a pencil in his left hand, which is hovering above a blueprint in the making next to an iPad, paper roll, and laptop. Meanwhile, his right hand has loosely formed a fist that hovers just below his chin in a way that indicates he is thinking.

But You Also Have to Consider the Resiliency of Your Materials

So far, we鈥檝e looked at the cost and environmental sides to mass timber and concrete. But we have yet to look at their resiliency, which is just as important. Without the right resiliency, a construction project isn鈥檛 worth its cost or its promised sustainability. After all, if it doesn鈥檛 stay standing in the current volatile environments we have today, it becomes a much less sustainable prospect and wastes what money was spent on its construction.

To avoid that, builders try to ensure their project materials are not just high-quality but also capable of resisting potential environmental hazards for a long period of time.

But what does that look like for mass timber and concrete construction?

Mass Timber Still Has Some Durability Concerns That Need to Be Considered

Despite the massive interest in the potential for sustainability in mass timber, the material鈥檚 resiliency does not garner the same appeal. Instead, many often list concerns about the potential threats to the material鈥檚 durability.

revolve around its resistance to fire and water.

That first concern might sound like it鈥檚 conflating mass timber construction with any old wood construction. But while the two don鈥檛 have the exact same fire concerns, they are both still vulnerable. Mass timber just happens to come with . That is especially the case when given a fire retardant coating. But even without the coating, it responds to fire by charring, which for a length of time, can protect the interior from damage. That in turn can slow down the collapse of a burning mass timber structure.

But that does not make it immune to fire. It鈥檚 still a combustible material. In fact, , timber elements add to the fuel load of a structure, increasing the initial fire rate.

That is especially important to remember when tall mass timber construction is just underway. At that time, there are no sprinkler systems and likely no fire-resistant coatings in use just yet. With both that and its extensive size, it leaves room for toward nearby structures if the mass timber structure catches fire, which has organizations like the Alberta Professional Fire Fighters & Paramedics Association concerned.

What鈥檚 more, the fire-rated assembly details for this material have yet to be fully standardized, leaving possible quality concerns.

The risk of water ingress is no less concerning. Engineered wood like mass timber can easily hide signs of that for years. That can lead to significant property damage and interfere with the material鈥檚 ability to withstand vertical and lateral loads.

Even if builders find ways to manage this risk and the risk of fire well enough, they鈥檒l still have similarly serious durability concerns with mass timber鈥檚 vulnerability to decay, mold, and termite attacks.

Meanwhile, Concrete Is Known as One of the Most Durable Materials Out There

There鈥檚 a reason concrete remains a popular building material, and it鈥檚 not just because it鈥檚 easily accessible worldwide. For centuries, it has proven itself to be a highly resilient material. It can withstand fire, severe weather, rot, and insects with relative ease.

Though, it does still share mass timber鈥檚 weakness to water.

Luckily, over the years, builders have come up with plenty of solutions for this issue. Some of the best involve full waterproofing systems. These protect not just the concrete itself but its surrounding structure as well. For the concrete鈥檚 protection, these often involve the use of a crystalline waterproofing admixture like our to ensure the concrete can chemically react to water to block it out and self-seal micro-cracks. Then, to protect the rest of the structure, additional tools like our are used, ensuring joints, penetrations, tie holes, and more are kept safe and dry from water ingress.

A pair of glasses with black temples sits on top of insurance policy papers for construction.

That Will Impact the Overall Cost of Insurance for a Structure

Risk is everything to insurance companies. Without an understanding of it, insurance companies can鈥檛 estimate just how much they鈥檒l be covering overall and whether that鈥檒l be a profitable venture for them. So the number and severity of risks a building material has will no doubt impact how well the material is received by such companies.

To that end, mass timber is at a . Due to its many vulnerabilities, most insurance companies are understandably more cautious around the material.

That can lead to some frustrating barriers for general contractors. For example, some insurance companies will likely insist on , which forces contractors to work with multiple insurers to properly cover a project. It鈥檚 a costly move for the contractor. It鈥檚 not the only one either as a number of insurance companies in general tend to increase their coverage prices when it comes to mass timber construction.

A concrete tower that's partially constructed stands next to a crane while towering over a construction worker who is on a separate platform pulling up some mass timber material.

With All These Aspects in Mind, It May Be Better to Stick with Concrete

Despite concrete鈥檚 own very real carbon concerns, it still remains our best solution for low-risk, sustainable construction. Compared to mass timber, it is more accessible, doesn鈥檛 lead to excessive logging, remains highly resilient, and comes with fewer insurance concerns. But more importantly, it is very versatile, making it possible to significantly reduce its lifetime carbon footprint. That gives builders the best of both worlds: an accessible, durable building material capable of creating long-lasting structures that can be modified to leave a smaller impact on the environment.

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