Using wood to build tall buildings
UBC Brock Commons Tallwood House

Brock Commons Tallwood House on the campus of the University of British Columbia shows some of the skyscraping potential of mass timber construction.

Editor’s note: This is taken from a Woodworking Network Podcast interview and has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the full interview, visit

William Sampson: Today, our guest is Todd Beyreuther, director of product development for Mercer Mass Timber. He’s at the forefront of a dynamic and growing construction trend. Welcome to the Woodworking Network Podcast.

Todd Beyreuther: Well, thank you and I’m really honored to be here. 

WS: Now, let’s start at the beginning. Can you give us a quick summary of what mass timber is and why it matters?

TB: Your lead in there is kind of the origin story. We all come from some background, whether it’s architecture, engineering, or in my case construction, and then we found our way into this manufacturing world. Mass timber really just fits that kind of prefabrication world really well. By definition what it really means is it’s a new construction type, new materials in the building codes, and the “mass” part is really a performance strategy on how a building performs in fire and in terms of structure and so forth. So, that’s how we start with that category. But then, we’re in a factory setting. It takes advanced manufacturing methodologies to achieve.

Todd Beyreuther
Todd Beyreuther is director of product development for Mercer Mass Timber.

WS: So, what we are talking about is using large wood products instead of concrete and steel to build buildings, correct?

TB: Yeah, it often gets pitted against concrete and steel and other technologies because those are the mature technologies, but it’s very much like the way we build buildings out of concrete and steel. But I spend a lot of my time bringing mass timber into hybrid approaches with light frame work and cold form steel. As we are maturing as an industry and we’re still emerging — less than 5 percent — as we do that, I think it’s really important that we make mass timber just as relevant with those low-rise, light frame construction types as the big buildings.

WS: The high rises that get all the sex appeal.

TB: They get all the attention and fine, 90 percent of the attention and be 5 percent of the industry, but that’s one of those kind of stories, yeah.

WS: Now what’s Mercer’s role in all of this? You’re a manufacturer of the materials that are used in these kinds of constructions?

TB: Mercer owns three factories, two in the U.S., one in Arkansas, and this one that I’m sitting at in Spokane, Washington, and then one in British Columbia. But it has to go beyond that. It takes teams of engineers, teams of project construction managers and really directly teams that can do all that computer modeling and control the robotics, the CNC, milling machines, so that’s really crucial to support a big factory like this. 

WS: We talk a lot about CNC manufacturing in a woodworking environment, mostly talking about 5x12 and 4x8 machines. I imagine there in Spokane you’ve got machines that dwarf those, right?

TB: I use to teach in architecture, and as an architecture student, you know they like to control these smaller CNC and laser cutting and so forth, and that’s part of the appeal of mass timber. You’re just doing it with a 60x12-foot gantry. But you’re making the same type of models.

WS: Right, it all looks the same on the computer, right? Well, it seems about every other week I hear about a new project to build an even taller building with mass timber construction. How fast is it growing and how big can it get?

TB: The reason a lot of the attention goes to the big buildings, and we love those. They are absolutely important to the growth of our collective industry, and they are quite frankly just fun to design. But the mid-rise buildings are what we need to address our housing, especially on the West Coast, our housing crisis.

Mass timber building
Mass timber might be most effective closing the construction gap between low-rise stick-built construction and super high-rise concrete and steel buildings.

WS: Can you tell us about the environmental story connected with mass timber?

TB: That biogenic piece is very important. I’m sitting in the inland Northwest, and we’re in a very fire-prone area, and our forests are not managed well. The challenge when they get overgrown is that they have a lot of fuel to have these massive wildfires across Washington, Oregon, California, and into Canada. Can we create products that create markets to help support forest restoration efforts? As we move around the country, it might be (supporting) rural economies.

WS: You’ve got just the basic quotient, too, of wood is a carbon sink. It’s holding that carbon in it, and if you put it in a building, it’s likely to hold it longer than if it gets in a wildfire and gives all that carbon up.

TB: It’s what we call the sequestration part. It’s storing that carbon and trying to give a chance for the rapid regrowth of these forests. If we can get ahead of those cycles, that’s a very important part of the story.

WS: What’s the cost comparison of this kind of construction vs. more conventional kinds of construction?

TB: We see a lot of competition with steel and concrete because it’s competitive in those types of buildings right now, those big massive heavy timber four- or five-story office buildings. It’s already competitive. To get to be cost competitive in these low-rise buildings, then we have to be more efficient in the factory, and we can get there. The shift is it goes from what we call a design-bid-build process where external architects and engineers are designing custom one-off buildings to now we need to, like the rest of the wood industry, develop components and assemblies. 

WS: Historically, I think most of the timbers for this kind of construction have come from softwood sources and you’re in the softwood world in Spokane, but I’ve heard that partly to avoid transportation issues, other places that are more near hardwood forests are trying to introduce hardwood mass timber. Is that anything that you can tell us about?

TB: It’s absolutely possible and it’s important especially in the Midwest and Northeast. 

WS: What’s different about the process for constructing a mass timber building compared to say concrete and steel? 

TB: I think the most important piece is that everything has an exact digital twin. It has to work on the computer because we have to tell the CNC machines what to cut so there’s a lot of time up front to get that thing right. But that pays off when you come to the job site. The job site is very different. You might have two or three people installing these large panels with a crane, and it’s going very quickly to a 1 or 2mm tolerance. That’s where you really see the difference. That precision and that speed of construction. 

WS: So, what’s better about mass timber? 

TB: I think you always have to approach that with two different audiences. One, is it faster, cheaper, better, so forth, and in a lot cases you can just say yes. The second piece is there’s obviously a reason why we want to be in these types of buildings. There’s the biophilic response to being in these types of structures.

WS: What about the fire issue with mass timber for buildings?

TB: It’s an important part of the story. The “mass” piece is really talking, speaking to that fire performance. It’s very similar to if you were going to start a campfire with kindling or start it with a log. The log will burn, but if you’re starting it with a match, it’s really about that controlled performance. It’s very predictable, and we know the charring of the material is very understandable vs. a rapid fire in a light frame building. That’s the difference in how the building and fire codes approach that and we as designers use the material.

WS: So, the bottom line is that there is no additional hazard in the building and, in fact, there might even be less of a hazard in the building because of that construction.

TB: The development of the building and fire codes for mass timber, they are still very conservative, and that’s a good thing. When we first started introducing in the U.S., to get to 8, 12, and 18 stories, the difference between those three different heights is the amount of encapsulation, how much of the wood are you covering up. When you get to the 18-story building, you can’t have any wood exposed. It’s all completely covered by Sheetrock and so forth, whereas the 8-story building could be completely exposed. They are different risk categories. But in that middle class there’s already been more fire testing over the last few years in Sweden, and that has allowed fire officials to understand better its performance. So, we’re starting now to see more exposed ceilings.

WS: What’s happening to increase acceptance of this form of construction?

TB: I started in professional practice as a construction engineer and went to academia because it was too early for the market for mass timber in 2011, 2012, so we spent a lot of time in research and development and then we started to see it included in the code 2015 and 2016. That was one of the big barriers. Now we’re on the verge of that hockey stick of growth and that last piece now that we have architects and engineers excited and understanding the technical. We have the jurisdictions and the code officials understanding. And then the third piece is can we be competitive? 

To learn more about Mercer Mass Timber and mass timber construction, visit:


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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.