State building code council allows tall mass timber buildings

What an exciting time for mass timber in Washington. Just last week the Washington State Building Code Council approved code changes that will allow for the structural use of mass timber in buildings as tall as 18 stories. This makes Washington the first state in the nation to allow tall mass timber buildings into its building code, without pursuing an alternate method.

“We see Washington as having the potential to be a national leader on mass timber,” said Matt Ojala, Director of Government Affairs for the sustainability nonprofit Forterra, to Lens News. “Supporting rural communities, supporting forest health efforts – this is something we’ve identified early on in terms of helping increase the demand for these products in our state.”

The State Building Code Council’s move comes in the same year that the Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5450, which directed the code council to adopt rules allowing for the use of mass timber in construction.

In recent years, a statewide coalition of land-use leaders, lawmakers, architects, environmental groups and forestry leaders has lobbied for code changes that will allow for tall wood buildings.

“There has been considerable and growing excitement around mass timber for years, especially due to its aesthetic and technical performance traits,” said Joe Mayo, of the architectural firm Mahlum Architects. “However, like any new building system, it has taken time for the building code to catch-up and recognize the potential of mass timber. This code change does just that for Washington State and finally allows mass timber buildings to realize their potential, grow up and revolutionize the way we design and build.”

“We are excited about any action that leads to incentives for wood and wood products,” said Jason Callahan, Director of Governmental Relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association. “Support for wood products helps Washington move closer to its climate goals, while also providing other ecosystem benefits.”

The Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, in a story written before the State Building Code Council’s move, reported that the city of Seattle is also close to allowing tall wood buildings.

In April, the city of Seattle said it will consider proposals for mass timber projects — including cross laminated timber — up to 18 stories.

Projects must comply with national code changes being proposed for the 2021 building code, according to Bryan Stevens, customer service manager with the Department of Construction & Inspections.

The International Code Council is considering the changes as part of the three-year cycle for updating the code, according to Stevens.

A vote is expected in the next few weeks, and if the changes are approved, the city would permit up to 18-story mass timber buildings through a request for a building code modification. This allows Seattle to consider proposals before the state adopts code changes.