There are several major trends driving architecture in 2020, and the impact they will have on mass timber and light-frame wood construction is unfolding now. What does a more sustainable city look like in the years to come, and how can low carbon building materials, like timber, help address climate change and make our rapidly growing urban centers healthier?

Think Wood spoke to some of the leading designers, developers, and timber experts in the sector to learn how wood factors into some of the innovative architecture and design trends we are seeing in the industry. We surveyed architects across the country to get their take on wood construction and design. Here are six trends to watch when it comes to the future of timber and the built environment.

Sustainability and Timber are Top of Mind for Architects1

1. Evolving Building Codes

With recent changes in building codes and a quest to find more sustainable ways to build taller, we are seeing a rise in the number of taller mass timber buildings popping up across North America. In response to growing support for taller timber structures throughout the United States, the International Code Council approved 14 changes to the International Building Code (IBC) that will see timber construction and design trend taller, up to a maximum of 18 stories.2 Similarly, Canada has also updated its national building code to permit 12-story timber buildings. Early adopters in Oregon and Washington in the United States and British Columbia and Quebec in Canada have helped drive this trend3. Expect to see more jurisdictions follow suit in 2020 and beyond.

2. Prefabrication and Modular Technologies

Off-site, prefabricated, and modular construction continues to grow in popularity for their ability to save time and money, and the industry is finding that timber offers several advantages when it comes to this more accurate factory-made approach to assembling a building like a kit of parts.4

While this shift to more turn-key design methods has massive upsides, it doesn’t come without risks. This new way of building requires more precise upfront planning and new skill sets.5 Wood’s flexibility and versatility position it as a material of choice for modular, prefabricated buildings.6 With the promise that modular construction can cut schedules by 20 to 50 percent and costs by 20 percent, expect to see more firms hiring for these qualifications and more clients vetting vendors for these areas of expertise.7

3. Innovative Business Models

Inextricably linked to prefabricated and modular construction are new business models that make these cutting-edge technologies viable and cost-effective. The rising demand for mass timber and light-frame wood construction as a more sustainable building type is challenging the industry to streamline the supply chain and more fully integrate material specification, modular design, prefabrication, construction, demolition, and reuse. Companies that can take an integrated design-fabricate-assemble-build business model will stand out among the competition.

Timber is easy to cut, versatile, lightweight, locally abundant, conveniently transportable, and naturally renewable – all of which are benefits that make timber well-suited to these new
business models8. Expect to see an uptick in firms offering the full package.

Architects Expect Wood to Increase for Large Projects9

4. New Design Tools

Innovations in digital design tools, such as building information modeling (BIM), Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA), 3D rendering software, and augmented virtual reality (AVR), are opening up new possibilities for timber construction and design.

“The digital tools are getting sophisticated enough that as designers, we can start looking at problems in a more integrated, cross-functional way.”
– Phil Bernstein, an architect who teaches at the Yale School of Architecture.10

New research is uncovering synergies between BIM, DfMA, and their application in the context of mass timber construction. It is expected that greater emphasis on these approaches could help mass timber construction boost its market share.

5. Net Zero Targets and Embodied Energy

There is increasing interest by cities and governments to use more low carbon building materials as part of a climate change mitigation strategy and to address the growing concern about embodied energy. 11Timber, rammed earth, and fly ash fit the bill.

A new report by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute lauds cross-laminated timber as a “good replacement” for traditional steel. The report predicts that governments will eventually move to regulate carbon, propelling a search for construction materials that emit less pollutants. Once a carbon tax is passed, developers will have a strong financial incentive to take action.

6. Biophilic Design

More and more, science is confirming common sense and the emerging concept of biophilia: that being exposed to nature and natural, organic materials not only calms our mind, but it can also contribute to an improved sense of health and well-being.

With biophilia on the brain, designers are looking for ways to incorporate more natural materials into buildings. Some of the best examples make ample use of natural daylight, views of nature, and exposed wood to create a warm, natural aesthetic that supports a health and
healing objectives.

Timber can serve triple duty within the built environment, delivering structural, aesthetic, and health benefits. It is light and strong to build with, and warm and welcoming to live within. Unlike live plants, wood does not rely on access to windows and natural light. As a result, wood’s biophilic health benefits extend even to windowless rooms where no natural light or landscape is present. For design teams interested in this approach, wood provides a high level of flexibility both in design and in application.

Innovative Projects, Tools, and Companies Driving Architecture and Design in 2020

Architects and designers around the world are working together to build taller, smarter, and more sustainably with wood. Download our 2020 Timber Construction Trendsetters Overview for a closer look at several projects, tools, and companies that are taking the built environment to a whole new level.

1Survey: Architect Perspectives On The Future Of Wood, AIA & Think Wood, 2019
2Tall Wood Buildings in the 2021 IBC – Up to 18 Stories of Mass Timber, WoodWorks, https://www.woodworks.org/wp-content/uploads/wood_solution_paper-TALL-WOOD.pdf
32020 NBCC code brings new era for Canadian wood construction, Journal of Commerce, https://canada.constructconnect.com/joc/news/government/2019/05/2020-nbcc-code-brings-new-era-canadianwood-construction
4Off-Site Studies: Solid Timber Construction, University of Utah, Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, College of Architecture and Planning, 2015, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.nibs.org/resource/resmgr/OSCC/OffSite_Studies_STC.pdf

52020 U.S. Construction Risk Outlook, Building Connected, https://www.buildingconnected.com/risk-trends/

6Off-Site Studies: Solid Timber Construction, University of Utah, Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, College of Architecture and Planning, 2015, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.nibs.org/resource/resmgr/OSCC/OffSite_Studies_STC.pdf
8Off-Site Studies: Solid Timber Construction, University of Utah, Integrated Technology in Architecture Center, College of Architecture and Planning, 2015, https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.nibs.org/resource/resmgr/OSCC/OffSite_Studies_STC.pdf
9Survey: Architect Perspectives On The Future Of Wood, AIA & Think Wood, 2019