The mass timber industry is enjoying disruptive growth across the world again

Words David Elliott, Founder, Mass Timber Focus Group

Will mass timber disrupt in SA?

The fragmented construction industry is divided into civil infrastructure and vertical building, and these again into sectors, build types, professions, and trades. Therefore, blanket statements regarding the disruption of the “construction industry” are non-sensical.

The data in the familiar productivity graph below shows the regression of construction productivity since 1950 and holds true in part across the world. However, statistics are based on models with many variables and population samples, so it should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the industry is not homogenous. Productivity improvement has been the subject of various governmental task teams like the excellent UK report, led by Sir John Egan in the 90s, called Rethinking Construction.

Notwithstanding these data, those of us who have worked in the trenches on large commercial developments, have seen the huge effort it takes to achieve the fast-track programs and shrinking budgets. This creates a dichotomy.

Fragmented value chains

Construction supply chains are fragmented and complex as they are project centric. These teams design and deliver prototypes, which are handmade under significant time pressure. The industry will therefore not easily produce unicorns like we have seen in hospitality, transport, banking, telecommunications or photography.

We need to narrow our focus to sectors and trades, as signature art galleries may contain office space, yet the flowing sculpted staircases in multi-volume atriums obviously cost more than speculative office builds. South Africa’s leading architects sculpt these iconic buildings as they have the budget, 3D design tools, machinery and trade contractors worth their salt. South Africa delivers large buildings in record time, and has world-class designers, yet we cannot match the speed achieved in 1930 on the Empire State Building. They delivered 102 floors in 14 months, with a record of 14 floor cycles in 10 working days. Structural steel unlocked this productivity, and hence the speed of our industrial sites with the help of Bentley™ or Tekla™.

Choices unlock innovation

Material choices therefore limit or unlock opportunities for speed and technological advancement across design, fabrication, assembly and installation. The irony is that the designers and contractors on the Empire State were delivering elements manufactured off-site using DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly). Mass timber employs the same but with 3D modelling, which is suitable for robotic machining, and can shave 25% off the concrete program on mid-rise office builds.

Sustainability and Covid

Climate change and the pandemic may be the catalysts needed for industry-wide innovation, as policy change can incentivise the use of renewable material or off-site construction towards a more sustainable future. Client-led change has proven the most successful way to improve industry productivity, and governments are re-committing to the Paris Agreement, so sustainable policies should surface post-Covid. Sustainability has migrated from green washing to re-structuring, as companies innovate, to reduce their carbon footprint.

McKinsey’s report titled Laying the foundation for zero-carbon cement underlines this reality. Diversification and innovation will become the new norm for suppliers to stay in the game. Mass timber is the only comprehensively tested renewable structural material as it is harvested from sustainable plantations. An example below of enormous timber beams from 1995.


There are many opportunities for technological disruption across the sectors and trades, which includes innovation in façades, HVAC and fire protection. However, mass timber is ready for use in mid-rise commercial, residential, cultural and public buildings. It would require further innovation to be economical enough for low-income housing.

Timber beams span nearly 100m at Oslo-Gardemoen International Airport in Norway.

Mass timber is the only comprehensively tested renewable structural material as it is harvested from sustainable plantations.

Shaking off history

Our adversarial contracting culture formed over decades on the back of the traditional building procurement system, which separates design and construction, and awards a contract to the lowest bidder. This system gave rise to an adversarial culture, creating a divide between the professional team and contractor, with the latter leveraging the contract to reclaim losses from an aggressive bid. These claims spill over into the value chain when trade contractors become a soft target for improving their cashflow or profitability.

Design-build has grown exponentially in the UK, USA, and Australia on large infrastructure builds and even high-rise buildings. Project teams become partners by default, and although there are drawbacks, it delivers predictably to the client’s satisfaction. Professionals may resent the ceding of their contractual nexus from client to contractor. The graph below shows the benefits of the collaborative design approach with early contractor involvement annotated as ‘BIM Workflow’. BIM adoption should result in a design-centric project and can unlock value as seen in the Empire State Building example.

Collaborative design-build shifts the cost curve to the left by mitigating uncertainty.

Design-build allows the professional team to use DfMA and work with the contractor from concept to factory floor. Design software needs to have a Level of Development (LoD) 400, like Catia, Inventor or Solid Works; packages like REVIT are not developed to output fabrication tickets in microns, which CNC machines require.

Oslo Airport trusses as built.

My personal learning experience was on the iconic Botswana Innovation Hub in partnership with SHoP Architects, New York. This is one of Africa’s most challenging façade projects in terms of process in scale and geometric complexity on the rainscreens. Tens of thousands of unique parts requiring barcoding for geo-locations as seen in the image above.
Off-site construction re-allocates labour to controlled environments where the learning curves are shorter, and quality assurance and control is more manageable, which significantly improves productivity and mitigates some construction safety risks.

South-West garden atrium of the Botswana Innovation Hub.

Sustainability is a topic on its own, as mass timber significantly reduces the embodied carbon in the construction process. Every m3 of wood stores a ton of CO2 and can contribute significantly towards a carbon neutral building.
The experience gained on this project is what attracted my attention to the construction of the Daramu House in Sydney pictured below. This was the first mass timber commercial building that I had seen, as they do not exist in South Africa. The timber structure is fully exposed showing beautiful organic glulam posts and beams, with Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) floor plates. This technology is on the rise globally, so when returning to South Africa, we founded the Mass Timber Focus Group to encourage local adoption and decided to use Daramu House as our mascot.

The next step

The Mass Timber Focus Group (MTFG) are confident that we will see significant adoption of mass timber in South Africa over the next decade, with prices becoming competitive as the supply chain matures. My current day job is launching a business selling Swiss steel, and my MTFG colleagues are engineers, an architect, and an academic, and like me, this is their passion project. Our mission is to accelerate the adoption of mass timber in South Africa, as we believe it will make a significant and sustainable contribution to our built environment.

Daramu House, Barangaroo Waterfront in Sydney, Australia.