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Support For Tall Timber Reaches New Heights In ICC Building Code

Prescriptive requirements for wood structures up to 18 stories were among the additions preliminarily approved for the International Building Code following the work of the International Code Council’s ad-hoc Tall Wood Buildings Committee.

Wood is widely recognized as a carbon-neutral building material, but its use as a structural material has been mostly limited to residential and low-rise buildings due to its combustible nature. Through recent advances in manufacturing and engineering, wood in the form of mass timber products is increasingly attracting interest as a structural system for tall buildings.

Portland, Ore., recently saw the completion of the eight-story Carbon12, currently the tallest wood building in the United States. Still, progress has been slow in this country as compared to Europe or Canada, where the 18-story-tall Brock Commons, in Vancouver, stands as the tallest timber structure in the world. One significant issue inhibiting widespread adoption in the U.S. is prescriptive building codes, which currently limit the height of wood buildings to 85 feet, or six stories. In December 2015, the International Code Council (ICC) formed an ad-hoc committee to study the impact of tall wood buildings on the building code with the membership voting on the adoption of proposed changes on Oct. 24.

The ICC’s International Building Code (IBC) classifies a high-rise building as any building with an occupied floor 75 feet above the lowest level at which fire department vehicles can access. The 2018 IBC defines heavy timber structural members as Type IV construction, which also includes a range of wood products, such as solid sawn timber, glue-laminated members, and composite wood members. The term mass timber, however, comprises both heavy timber as well as engineered products, many of which the IBC does not reference, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT).

Heavy timber construction is currently limited to a height of 85 feet. Architects can design taller wood structures, but they must demonstrate that the design meets the prescribed code and performs as well or better than a similar concrete or steel structure. This can be a costly and time-consuming process, requiring extensive testing and documentation on the part of the design team and building owner.

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