Manufacturing of building materials and construction of buildings make up 11% of the global greenhouse gas emission by sector. Mass timber construction has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by moving wood into buildings with designs that have traditionally been dominated by steel and concrete. The environmental impacts of mass timber buildings were compared against those of functionally equivalent conventional buildings. Three pairs of buildings were designed for the Pacific Northwest, Northeast and Southeast regions in the United States to conform to mass timber building types with 8, 12, or 18 stories. Conventional buildings constructed with concrete and steel were designed for comparisons with the mass timber buildings. Over all regions and building heights, the mass timber buildings exhibited a reduction in the embodied carbon varying between 22% and 50% compared to the concrete buildings. Embodied carbon per unit of area increased with building height as the quantity of concrete, metals, and other nonrenewable materials increased. Total embodied energy to produce, transport, and construct A1–A5 materials was higher in all mass timber buildings compared to equivalent concrete. Further research is needed to predict the long-term carbon emissions and carbon mitigation potential of mass timber buildings to conventional building materials.
As the population continues to grow in China’s urban settings, the building sector contributes to increasing levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Concrete and steel are the two most common construction materials used in China and account for 60% of the carbon emissions among all building components. Mass timber is recognized as an alternative building material to concrete and steel, characterized by better environmental performance and unique structural features. Nonetheless, research associated with mass timber buildings is still lacking in China. Quantifying the emission mitigation potentials of using mass timber in new buildings can help accelerate associated policy development and provide valuable references for developing more sustainable constructions in China. This study used a life cycle assessment (LCA) approach to compare the environmental impacts of a baseline concrete building and a functionally equivalent timber building that uses cross-laminated timber as the primary material. A cradle-to-gate LCA model was developed based on onsite interviews and surveys collected in China, existing publications, and geography-specific life cycle inventory data. The results show that the timber building achieved a 25% reduction in global warming potential compared to its concrete counterpart. The environmental performance of timber buildings can be further improved through local sourcing, enhanced logistics, and manufacturing optimizations.
The building industry currently consumes over a third of energy produced and emits 39% of greenhouse gases globally produced by human activities. The manufacturing of building materials and the construction of buildings make up 11% of those emissions within the sector. Whole-building life-cycle assessment is a holistic and scientific tool to assess multiple environmental impacts with internationally accepted inventory databases. A comparison of the building life-cycle assessment results would help to select materials and designs to reduce total environmental impacts at the early planning stage for architects and developers, and to revise the building code to improve environmental performance. The Nature Conservancy convened a group of researchers and policymakers from governments and non-profit organizations with expertise across wood product life-cycle assessment, forest carbon, and forest products market analysis to address emissions and energy consumption associated with mass timber building solutions. The study disclosed a series of detailed, comparative life-cycle assessments of pairs of buildings using both mass timber and conventional materials. The methodologies used in this study are clearly laid out in this paper for transparency and accountability. A plethora of data exists on the favorable environmental performance of wood as a building material and energy source, and many opportunities appear for research to improve on current practices.