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Mississippi could lead the region and country in applications of mass timber building technologies

By BECKY GILLETTE

Mississippi is a timber state. The Mississippi State University Forestry Extension Service estimates that 62 percent of the state’s land area is forested, about 18.6 million acres, with a total annual economic impact estimated at $14.8 billion. Right now, there is a collaborative effort to get even more from the state’s timber assets with innovative mass timber building technologies.

Mass timber building refers to engineered wood products usually involving lamination and the compression of multiple layers to create solid panels of wood. While engineered wood products are not, innovative work currently being done by Mississippi State University, the Mississippi Forestry Association and partners such as the City of Quitman could expand the use of these products potentially creating more markets and more economic impact from one of the state’s most important natural resources.

“Mass timber products certainly provide an opportunity to think about an increase to the opportunities for forest products by being able to develop a new market sector in innovative mass timber building technologies,” said Jacob A. Gines, associate professor, School of Architecture, Mississippi State University (MSU). “A vast majority of the economy in Mississippi is based on timber. When I moved here seven years ago, I came to realize that Mississippi can be a leader in the Southeast, if not the country, with this technology. That got me really excited.”

The design studio at the School of Architecture is looking at the application of these wood products and how to encourage use of these products in new and innovative ways within architecture. The School of Architecture also works closely with the MSU Department of Sustainable Bioproducts, formerly known as the Forest Products Group, which works to develop new wood products and does specialty destructive and non-destructive testing to understand the properties of the wood products such as how coatings perform, and how to prevent rot and termite damage.

“They are primarily engaged in the wood science part,” Gines said. “My part is looking at applications. How can we use these products that are being developed? How do we apply in them in the field and use them in architecture?”

With the design studios, a number of students are given hypothetical design challenges to figure out innovative ways to use mass timber building products. The design studio is a laboratory for experimenting with these wood products.

“This past year, the studio looked at designing a black box theater in Vicksburg,” Gines said. “We had about 40 students engage in that project tasked with not just designing a good building, but using mass timber products as key structural and aesthetic elements. In addition to structural strength, how can the beauty of wood be used to add to the aesthetics and overall beauty of the project?

Studies have shown there are psychological benefits of building with wood and having wood in interiors.  The positive effects of wood in those environments relate to biophilia, which is defined as a love of life and the living world.

Currently the design studio is working on a project to use mass timber components in single-family homes being developed in Quitman.

“I met Quitman Mayor Eddie Fulton at a Southern Timber Innovations Conference where I presented,” Gines said. “Eddie was looking for ways to strengthen the economy of the city and was interested in what we are going with mass timber. Mass timber is used frequently in large and tall buildings, but not much in single-family homes.”

The designs using mass timber components are for four homes that are to be part of Quitman Village, a mixed-use neighborhood on a large area of vacant land close to the downtown area.

“To me it is exciting to work with a mayor who has a vision and is excited about the potential for his people and city,” Gines said. “We are helping him visualize and demonstrate what the possibilities might be. Eddie and that group have caught the vision of how this technology could make a positive impact to our communities and state. It takes those kinds of special partnerships to make that happen. I’m delighted to work with visionary people within our state helping Mississippi be a leader in this particular industry.”

One of the most well-known mass timber products is cross-laminated timber. Dimensional lumber is laminated together in perpendicular directions. It can be up to ten to 12 feet wide and 30 to 40 feet long. Thicknesses depend on the number of laminations. Products can be used for posts, beams, wall panels, floor panels, etc.

“The principle is based on strength within wood,” Gines said. “Wood is really strong when force is applied parallel to the grain. Some people mistake mass timber for heavy timber. They are different. Heavy timber is a non-engineered product that is just a slice of the tree. Mass timber is an engineered product for taking smaller pieces put together to make a stronger, more durable wood product. Engineering allows us some flexibilities and opportunities to do some amazing things.”

Using smaller pieces of lumber could be a major benefit to the environment. Gines said using younger trees for the engineered products makes a lot of sense in that it can allow old growth forests with a complex ecosystem to be preserved.

Gines said the design studio is also working on designs for a church in Hernando to re-imagine how a church might look and operate with mass timber.

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About Becky Gillette