Sierra Institute reports on ‘mass timber’ and how it could help the forests

If you live in California, there is a chance you have visited a mass timber building or heard about mass timber developments coming to a place near you. Mass timber is a relatively new technology in the United States. Advocates claim it can help California build its way out of overstocked, diseased, and highly flammable forests. But what exactly is mass timber and why are environmentalists, housing rights advocates, and foresters, alike, interested in growing the sector?


These questions and more are answered by the Sierra Institute for the Community and Environment in a new report for California’s Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, titled Mass timber and other innovative wood products in California: A study of barriers and potential solutions to grow the state’s sustainable wood products sector. In this report, the Sierra Institute and collaborators examine what mass timber is, explore how it can help improve forest management at a time when California is experiencing catastrophic wildfire, and identify ways mass timber can contribute to rural and urban development.


Mass timber is a family of building materials and a construction technology that has come to the United States by way of Europe. Pieces of wood are joined to create a structural wood panel that can be used to build tall wooden buildings, up to 18 stories tall under the new 2021 International Building Code which came into effect in California earlier this year. Mass timber buildings are demonstrating the ability to withstand fire and seismic activity, opening up new possibilities for the state as it battles catastrophic wildfire and urgent needs for housing both in rural and urban areas. Mass timber also can be used in place of more conventional, carbon-emitting building materials, like cement or steel, that contribute upwards of 10 percent of global emissions. Mass timber offers a new future for occupants of buildings given that people respond positively to the warmth of wood in the built environment.


The authors of the report set out to understand the barriers to growth of this sector in the state, but quickly found that California is actually driving demand nationally for mass timber buildings built, in construction, or in design, with 2/3 more demand than the next leading state. California is also investing in innovative trends in the sector that carry international implications, especially as more technology companies invest in mass timber-based development across the state, including Google’s San José mixed-use campus. In other words, the state is already leading the pack in mass timber use, but is at the nascent stages of developing manufacturing capacity that is aligned with forest management objectives.



The authors of the report outline steps that the state can take to grow the sector in ways that align with climate change, forest management, and equitable development goals. Steve Marshall, one of the originators of the USDA Forest Service Wood Innovations Grant, Founder of Mass Timber Strategy, and co-author of this report, explained that, “We are excited by the findings and recommendations detailed in the report. The mass timber sector is expansive, but we found that with the right policy mechanisms in place, the state can align manufacturing incentives with cross-cutting goals to improve forest management and build a better future.”


Mass timber offers the possibility to add value to lower value timber and to support rural economies in the manufacturing sector, though intentional efforts are needed to ensure mass timber supports cross-cutting goals for the state.  Jonathan Kusel, co-author on the report and Executive Director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment, the organization that built the first full-cross laminated timber building in the State of California, explained that, “We see mass timber as an important opportunity to reimagine and reinvest in rural forested California, but recognize that targeted incentives are needed to ensure positive impacts reach rural communities and support regenerative forest management.”

You can read the full report here at the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment’s website: