This article was written and provided by Laurence Ritchie of the WoodSolutions Mid-Rise Advisory Team.
Almost unheard of a decade ago, mid-rise timber construction is quickly gaining traction in Australia’s property industry. Following a first foray into tall timber apartments in 2012 (Forte Living in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct), prefabricated timber systems have been used for a variety of structures, from the World’s tallest timber vertical extension in Melbourne through to the World’s tallest timber office building (10 storeys) in Brisbane.
While these are some impressive feats, the mid-rise enthusiasts may note that these iconic projects are built from mass timber, not lightweight systems. This is of course true, but while mass timber is behind the considerable movement for 6+ storey timber buildings, lightweight framing isn’t far behind. In fact, since 2013 more than 10 tall timber buildings (4+ storeys) have been built utilising lightweight systems, with more on the horizon.
Lightweight wall frames and floor cassettes offer an attractive value proposition to any builder, but perhaps none more-so than those involved in delivering apartments. Prefabricated lightweight systems are an efficient solution for the spans and performance conditions typically experienced in apartment projects. While these big buildings do require increased acoustic, fire, and structural performance compared to a typical detached house, the systems called for are now common and familiar to the industry. The WoodSolutions Mid-rise Advisory Program (MAP) has identified the key benefits of using timber frame construction to build these buildings (check out our website to learn more), and *spoiler alert*, there are a lot of them.
So if lightweight timber frame construction is so beneficial to mid-rise apartment projects, why don’t we see more mid-rise timber frame buildings?
This is an understandable question, especially in light of the experiences in other Western nations (e.g. timber framing is used in most of North America’s multi-family buildings up to 6 storeys, and 80% of mid-rise timber construction in Sweden is in lightweight framing). The answer to this question is complex, but it ultimately comes down to one key element: until we have dozens of built local mid-rise timber frame projects, builders and developers will continue to assess this construction system with a heightened level of risk and contingency.
So what can we do about this? There are a lot of answers to this question, but the key outcome is simple: build more mid-rise timber frame projects. To do this we need developers for whom the benefits of timber construction are truly valuable and is willing to set an example for much of our local industry. Ideally this developer will need to build a lot of high quality low to mid-rise apartments within a relatively short period of time, and they will be motivated to utilise sustainably produced resources, small-to-medium sized manufacturers, and local builders to deliver them.
Through sheer chance, this is the exact opportunity we are now faced with.
Tasked with stimulating a potentially fragile post-COVID economy, both State and Federal governments are splashing cash like never before. While the timber industry is currently run off its feet from ‘HomeBuilder’ induced enthusiasm, State governments have also recently announced major spending in public infrastructure – most notably 14,500 social housing units in Victoria (although other states are also spending big on social housing). As the current glut of detached homes and renovations dry up, it is these social housing packages that offer to keep the industry busy while accelerating the growth of mid-rise timber frame construction in the apartment market.
While our social housing stock was once predominantly made up of detached houses, current day social housing residents are more likely to live in single person households, and are well suited to high quality, thoughtfully designed apartment buildings. Based on recent social housing projects, these buildings may typically feature 30-60 apartments each, and may be tendered to design and construction teams in groups (so the winning tenderer will build multiple buildings under one contract).
To take advantage of this opportunity, the timber value chain needs to provide confidence that we can supply at this scale. While there are one or two frame and truss manufacturers for whom this may be easy, much of the industry may struggle to commit to a contract to supply larger projects. For this reason, Ric Sinclair (Managing Director, Forest and Wood Products Australia) recently proposed consideration of a bid consortia that unites multiple fabricators with a nailplate manufacturer and timber supplier, allowing them to collaborate in the supply of larger projects. This bid consortia may include a single independent design and/or shop drawing team, funded by the members of the bid consortia.
To ensure that the multi residential jobs are not at the expense of existing detached building customers, there may be an opportunity to utilise a second shift within the frame and truss plants.
While the WoodSolutions team cannot directly administer this initiative, we would like to highlight the rare opportunity available to the industry, and this requires a new way of thinking about the timber value chain and new business models. If you would like to better understand the opportunities around mid-rise lightweight framing, then please contact the author (Laurence.firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Mid-rise Advisory Program is made possible thanks to support from industry partners and the Federal government through a voluntary matching scheme. To see a list of our partners or learn more about the program you can visit our website here.