ATLANTA — Georgia’s timber industry, which already tops the nation in a number of categories, may get a boost from new technology that lets developers construct mid-rise office buildings made mostly of wood.
The General Assembly is considering legislation asking the state Department of Community Affairs to recommend whether Georgia should adopt a provision in the International Building Code that allows buildings constructed of “mass timber” to rise as high as 18 stories. The state building code limits wood office buildings to six stories.
Other countries and some states already are taking advantage of the international provision to put up mid-rise office buildings well above Georgia’s height limit, said Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, chief sponsor of House Bill 777 and a timber farmer.
“Out on the West Coast, Washington and Oregon have done it. Canada has been using it for some time,” he said. “It’s going to be a good fit for our Southern yellow pine. It’s a good opportunity for us.”
Georgia already is the No. 1 state in commercially available timberland, with 22 million acres of privately owned forests. The Peach State also is tops in the nation in exports of pulp, paper, wood fuel and wood pellets.
Forestry generates an annual economic impact of $36.3 billion and is Georgia’s second-largest industry, accounting for 148,414 direct and indirect jobs, according to the Forsyth-based Georgia Forestry Association.
Andy Barrs, president and CEO of Watkinsville-based Barrs Industries, which owns stretches of timberland throughout the Southeast, said the science of building with mass timber has existed for decades. But the market for mid-rise office buildings made mostly of wood is still emerging, he said.
Builders glue cross-laminated timbers together to create a strong material that can be used for floors, ceilings and load-bearing walls, Barrs said.
“They can cut the pieces exactly, so the preciseness is very high,” he said. “It allows buildings to occur in urban areas with a smaller footprint. It’s a very efficient way to build, kind of like Lincoln Logs.”
Bill de St. Aubin, CEO of Sizemore Group, an architectural firm based in Atlanta, said concerns over fire protection have prompted some hesitation to use wood in mid-rise office buildings. But mass timber – unlike the wood used in stick-built residential construction – is actually more fire resistant than steel, he said.
“The new law recognizes wood is a protective material,” he said. “Mass timber doesn’t light easily. … Mass timber is very thick. It’s a really strong material.”
Mass timber has yet to make significant inroads in Georgia. Some cities passed ordinances in recent years limiting the height of buildings made of wood, but the General Assembly passed a bill in 2018 prohibiting local governments from imposing height restrictions below what the state code provides.
Use of the technology currently is limited to two buildings in Atlanta. The recently completed T3 West Midtown building at Atlantic Station consists of a concrete ground floor and six stories made of wood.
The recently opened 47,000-square-foot Kendeda Living Building on the campus of Georgia Tech won last year’s top prize for innovative sustainable design from the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Sizemore Group currently is building a new church for Our Lady of Lourdes in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, the city’s oldest African American Catholic church.
“Every project I do now, I look at mass timber first,” Aubin said.
Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association, said the ability to construction mid-rise office buildings from wood would go a long way toward sustaining the state’s timber industry. “It will give landowners a reason to continue planting trees,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, especially in Atlanta where we have so much construction this can be applied to.”
The House bill calls for the Department of Community Affairs to begin its review of the International Building Code this summer and complete its work before July 1, 2021.
Villegas said he’s not surprised by the length of the process.
“It takes a little time for new technology to be accepted,” he said. “There’s a lag time that occurs with the international building codes being adopted at the state level.”
House Bill 777 passed the House Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee unanimously early this month and is expected to before the full House soon.