Researchers explore emerging market for mass timber in Michigan
Posted by Larry Adams

A photo taken of the inside of MSU's STEM Teaching and Learning Facility. Mass-timber beams and panels are integrated into and showcased throughout the building.

Photo By Michigan State University AgBioResearch

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Researchers from the Michigan State University Agbio department created models forecasting the supply and demand of mass timber in Michigan. A future, the researchers found and as described in a MSU paper, that has certain supply challenges.

Raju Pokharel, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Forestry, is studying ways Michigan can employ its vast number of forests to capitalize on the mass-timber boom.

Pokharel worked with graduate students and started developing models to understand what the economic impact would be in the state if a facility were built to produce mass timber.

In 2022, estimated that the annual demand for mass timber in the Great Lakes states would be 12,400 cubiic meters. Since then, the demand has projected to double until at least 2030. A preliminary analysis from Pokharel and Huff determined that the demand for mass timber in the Great Lakes states over the next five years will be at least 124,390 cubic meters, with the expectation that further analysis will see that figure increase significantly.

Developed in Europe during the 1980s, modern mass-timber products started to gain traction in the U.S. around 2010. In 2015, the interest in mass timber began to grow in Michigan.

“People in Michigan were building with it — MSU built the STEM facility with it,” Pokharel said. “Instead of hauling and getting mass timber from Canada, why can’t we start a processing facility in Michigan? Michigan has wood, but it’s struggling to sell and use it optimally.

“Using wood means more revenue for landowners, which means better management of forests. When there’s money, forests can be managed better not just for timber, but for other benefits like water quality and wildlife habitat.”

Softwoods like spruce and pine are used for their strength, durability, hazard resistance and aesthetics to engineer mass timber. Pokharel said the International Building Code (IBC) doesn’t include hardwoods for mass-timber construction due to a lack of research and evidence on its performance and fire safety. Nevertheless, research on the engineering and fire-safety properties of hardwoods is currently being conducted with the hope that it’ll soon lead to its inclusion in the IBC.

Hardwood species make up about 70% of Michigan’s forests, but softwoods like aspen, pine and spruce also commonly grow in the state. However, building a mass-timber facility in Michigan means ensuring there’s an adequate supply of softwood lumber and guaranteeing the price remains competitive within the market.

Softwood sawmill operations, where lumber from trees is produced, are scattered across the Great Lakes region and within the state, many being in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula. Softwood lumber is already used for construction projects that don’t involve mass timber, like building single-family houses, but by establishing a new mass-timber facility, the demand and competition for lumber would increase at sawmills.

Would there be enough softwood to meet an increased demand for it not only in Michigan, but across the country?

“Our analysis showed that there’s enough forest resources in Michigan and the Great Lakes states (to support a Michigan-based mass-timber facility),” Pokharel said.

Sandra Lupien is the project manager for this study. She’s the director of MassTimber@MSU, an MSU program that advances mass-timber construction and production in Michigan through outreach, communications, research, education, policy and partnerships.

With research funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), Lupien, Pokharel, Emily Huff, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Forestry, and Ichchha Thapa, a doctoral student in MSU’s Department of Forestry, estimated the market demand for mass timber. 

In Michigan, several mass-timber building types are in the works: multifamily-residential, offices, schools — even a veterinary clinic. Because of the material’s large size, mass timber has — up to this point — not been typically used in constructing single-family houses.

“There’s a reason it’s called ‘mass’ timber — the pieces (of material) are massive,” Lupien said.

For more information, and to read MSU's complete paper on Mass Timber, click here.

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