n:w explains
February 6, 2024

Top tips for insuring your next mass timber building

You’re planning a building—you need financing, a design, a general contractor and, critically, insurance.

But if you’re planning to use mass timber in your building in North America, you may have to employ different measures to secure both builder’s risk (also known as course of construction) insurance and occupancy insurance.

Here are several steps building owners and developers can take to ensure they’re covered at the right price.

Building professionals in high-reflective vests tour a mass timber construction site.

Alliance Française construction tour. | Photo credit: Arkitek Creative

Wood is wood, right? Not necessarily

Help your broker understand how mass timber—which employs engineered wood products such as cross-laminated, nail-laminated and glue-laminated timber as well as laminated veneer lumber—differs from light-frame wood construction. 

You’ll need to educate brokers about the substantial and growing body of international evidence of mass timber’s fire-resistant properties. You’ll also want to show them that “numerous tests have been done that show mass timber’s fire-resistant properties. Through a combination of char and/or encapsulation requirements, a 2+ hour fire resistance can be achieved as needed to meet or exceed building code requirements.”

That includes a 2022 mass timber test burn of a structure in Ontario, Canada in which the fire on the structural elements “largely self-extinguished within the first hour” without any water or fire-suppression efforts and despite heavy use of accelerants and increased fuel load.

Building owners and developers must similarly educate brokers that properly constructed mass timber structures are not any more susceptible to water damage than those made from concrete and steel, according to the Canadian Wood Council.

Also available is the Mass timber project questionnaire for builder’s risk insurance by WoodWorks US. This form is designed to help construction, development and design teams in collecting mass timber project-specific information to share with their insurance team.

Bring your insurance team members in early  

Just as mass timber experts recommend getting a timber supplier on board early in the design and planning process, so should you decide on your insurance broker long before breaking ground. Explain your reasoning for using mass timber elements, where and how they’re being used on the project, and provide the fire safety details of those products. That way, your supplier and design teams can give the broker answers to any technical questions they have while making their decisions about insurance.

Tim Buhler, director, programs and operations with Canadian Wood Council says, “We want to work together with insurance companies. We’ve learned a lot about their processes over the years and they’ve learned a lot about the data points that we collect, such as square footage, materials used, building category, etc.

Annabelle Hamilton, technical manager, planning and development with WoodWorks BC adds, “Brokers are going to be the ones negotiating with the insurers or the underwriters, so the more you can equip them with the knowledge to go to that negotiation table, the better rates that they’ll be able to negotiate.” 

For a pre-design insurance checklist, download Insuring timber: Breaking down barriers to the advancement of timber construction by the Canadian Wood Council.  

Give examples of similar successful mass timber construction projects 

Data is crucial in assessing risk for insurers. So, while being the first at something is beneficial when you’re trying to advertise, being the first mass timber construction project for an insurance company can be challenging. 

The National Building Code of Canada is an ally, both Hamilton and Buhler say, with the latter adding, “If it’s codified, you know so much of the risk evaluations have been done already by a number of testing bodies… The necessary precautions and compliance are there.” 

There are already successful projects that have paved the way for mass timber construction in the insurance industry. One notable example is the 18-storey Brock Commons Tallwood House at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C. Completed in 2017, Brock Commons was the tallest mass timber building in the world at the time. Its successful completion and adherence to strict safety standards helped build confidence among insurers. 

Another successful project is the T3 building in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This seven-storey office building, completed in 2016, was one of the first mass timber projects in the United States. Its innovative design and sustainable construction practices garnered attention from insurers, who recognized the potential for reduced fire risks and improved structural performance. 

Owners and developers can do additional research and connect with organizations such as WoodWorks BC to find similar projects that have been successful. Giving your insurance company examples of comparable building typologies that have been completed and occupied without incident is an effective way to help your cause.

A safe mass timber construction site is an insurable site 

To obtain builder’s risk or course of construction insurance, you’ll need to develop a fire safety plan that answers insurers’ questions, which can include: 

  • What kind of security do you have on site (fences, security guard, cameras)?
  • How fast can you activate your sprinkler during construction?
  • Do you have an accessible safety plan or an appointed safety champion on site?
  • Is site clean-up—which eliminates potential fire fuel—a priority? 

Brokers will also need to know how quickly a building will be assembled, which not only affects the duration of builder’s risk insurance but also how issues such as components’ exposure to the elements, especially moisture, are accounted for in a policy. 

For more best practices specific to insuring timber projects through construction, download A guideline for insuring timber in Canada, which includes insights and practical steps covering structural systems, construction site considerations, fire safety, water and moisture, and repair and rehabilitation. For the latest on moisture risk management of a mass timber construction site, see also Moisture risk management strategies for mass timber buildings by RDH Building Science and On-site moisture protection of mass timber by FPInnovations.    

Selecting an insurance provider

“We do want to keep the market competitive, but there is a time when you will need to select someone and bring them into the process at an in-depth level,” says Hamilton. 

While the temptation for a building owner may be to go to a broker with which they’ve previously worked, especially on a mass timber project, that’s not always the smartest move. The key, as with Christmas or car shopping, is to cast a wide net and do your homework. 

“Be prepared to shop around in terms of brokering if you’re not getting the answer that you want to hear,” Buhler says. “Not all brokerages specialize in certain areas, and it’s an investment in time and learning to understand the differences in mass timber construction.” 

To learn more about insuring mass timber from the perspective of an insurance professional, check out Essential insights for insurers on mass timber buildings.

For support in sourcing insurance for your next mass timber project, speak to a technical team member at WoodWorks.