The Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge’s ultimate goal is to help solve the climate crisis by linking mass timber buildings in New England with local forests that generate the wood for them. This system will support equitable, high-quality housing and rural jobs, while maximizing the potential of both forests and cities to mitigate climate change.
As the challenge of global climate change escalates, all aspects of society need to reduce greenhouse gas impacts. Mass timber provides an opportunity to drastically reduce the emissions associated with the way we build cities, especially when combined with Exemplary Forestry to increase the climate mitigation benefits of regional forests.
What Is Mass Timber?
Mass timber is the umbrella term for a suite of engineered wood products that involve taking small pieces of lumber and gluing them together to create massive timbers that are strong, lightweight, and fire resistant. They provide an alternative to mineral-based building materials, like concrete and steel, that contribute much larger amounts of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. In fact, 11 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions can be attributed just to the mining, manufacturing, transport, and use of mineral-based building materials—largely concrete and steel. Mass timber is instead forged from sunlight, and its production generates little greenhouse gas emissions.
Mass timber construction helps preserve the climate in three key ways:
- It can replace more carbon-intensive building materials.
- As a wooden material, mass timber serves as a carbon store, and long-lived buildings made with mass timber safely lock away all of that carbon in their structures.
- It can enable denser urban development that reduces transportation emissions and reduces deforestation along urban fringes from sprawl housing.
Grow, Build, Live
To bring about this revolution in climate-friendly building construction in New England, we need the support and cooperation of stakeholders from along the path mass timber takes from the forest where its component wood is first grown, to the cities where people finally use buildings made with its panels. This mass timber pathway, formally known as a value chain, links our forests to our cities to reduce climate change and benefit both rural and urban communities. We’ve broken this value chain into three broad segments that also serve as our vision for the Forest-to-Cities Climate Challenge: Grow, Build, and Live.
Forests are critical to our planet’s health and to our potential to prevent climate change. Each year, forests store around a quarter of all global carbon emissions. To prevent climate change, we must simultaneously 1) maintain or expand existing forested areas, 2) maintain or expand the amount of carbon stored in living forests, and 3) maintain or expand forests’ production of wood used to replace fossil-fuel intensive materials.
This is why sustainable forest management is key to ensuring that mass timber construction is indeed climate-friendly. At New England Forestry Foundation, we have articulated the standard of forestry we aspire to practice, Exemplary Forestry, which has three co-equal goals: enhance wildlife habitat, increase the production of high-quality wood, and ensure regional forests store carbon at optimal levels for the climate and for forest productivity. A market for mass timber can provide an incentive for forest owners to continue growing high-quality trees that pull carbon out of the atmosphere over the course of their lives.
By building with local wood, we can create a virtuous cycle where urban and rural communities support each other.
In rural parts of the region, forest landowners, foresters, loggers, and mill workers will benefit from the growing demand for mass timber. As more tall wood buildings go up in our region, workers and communities that have depended on the forest for their livelihoods stand to benefit.
Coupled with equitable urban planning policies, using New England wood in regional buildings can allow urban communities to benefit through improved quality and availability of housing, potentially with better access to mass transit and jobs. Utilizing responsibly harvested mass timber in place of more carbon-intensive building materials allows construction of tall buildings with minimal emissions, creating a built environment aligned with society’s ambitions to combat climate change.
Using local wood avoids exporting the environmental impacts of wood harvesting to regions with less resilient forests or less oversight of forest practices, and supports the other benefits regional forests provide to all New England residents—recreational opportunities, wildlife habitat and clean air and water.
Around the world, pioneering builders and engineers have been pushing the bounds of how we build with wood thanks to mass timber’s versatility. New, tall wood buildings are going up with increasing speed, allowing society to address housing shortages quickly while reducing use of materials with large carbon footprints. Often compared to miniature building sets, mass timber panels are low-weight and easy to assemble, which means construction teams can quickly and quietly complete projects with fewer on-site variables than would otherwise be required. This translates to a smoother project timeline and fewer headaches for those involved in construction and their neighbors.
Thanks to mass timber’s ease of construction, we can create the new housing that our cities will need to thrive, with minimal impact on existing residents. Modular, affordable mass timber housing has already been deployed in parts of Europe; we must act now to bring this technology to New England. Despite the current economic downturn, Boston still faces a housing shortage and will again face rising housing prices. The Metro Mayor’s Coalition aims to increase available housing in greater Boston by 185,000 units by 2030 to help maintain affordability for new residents and thereby keep the area economically vibrant. Mass timber is the building material that will help us to meet this challenge, and with New England firms and designers exploring the material in modular and prefabricated applications, they have demonstrated the potential for mass timber to be deployed in affordable, efficiently constructed housing that will particularly improve the quality of housing for low income and historically marginalized communities.
In addition to a housing crisis, Metro-Boston also faces a transportation crisis, with the region consistently being ranked the worst in the country for traffic congestion and mobility. Mass timber buildings make it possible to economically and efficiently build housing of 6-12 stories; other building materials either aren’t strong enough for that height, or cost too much to use in that height range. If we use mass timber for mid-rise housing near public transportation and urban resources, we can reduce sprawl that destroys forest land, reduce dependence on cars and consequent traffic congestion and pollution, and improve residents’ access to jobs and shopping.