The seeds of Andrew Waugh’s great disruption were planted in 2003.
“Back then, people were saying we could ‘fix’ climate change by putting a solar panel on top of everything we built,” he remembered. “But we knew that wasn’t even close to enough.”
So Waugh’s East London architectural firm started studying mass timber, knowing it was the truly renewable building material – albeit largely unknown and untested in large-scale developments.
“We were entranced by the opportunities this new material could provide,” he said.
It took five years for Waugh Thistleton Architects to hone their ideas – “so we could talk about the economic benefits of this kind of building” – and to bring that vision to reality in the world’s first mass timber tower, Murray Grove.
The nine-story apartment complex in London’s Hackney borough was made from cross-laminated timber manufactured by KLH, an Austrian company.
The economic savings came at the construction site. Murray Grove was built in 27 days by four men, without a tower crane.
Using wood saved 1,150 tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere – the equivalent of running a wind turbine on top of the building for 210 years. And 29 families moved into new homes in a country with an overwhelming housing shortage.
Although simple in design, Murray Grove’s apartments were warm and inviting, and provided considerable flexibility for the architects, builders and new homeowners.
And its exterior was, verifiably, an art piece. The pixelated façade, with 2,500 individual panels in three hues, was inspired by Gerhard Richter’s abstracts and arranged to represent shadows falling on the building site.
Even with all that, though, Waugh’s clients didn’t want anyone to know their building was made of wood.
A newspaper got wind of the timber tower, and wrote a story. Every apartment in Murray Grove sold in 1 hour, 15 minutes.
The prophets of mass timber’s coming are architects, for certain, but also sawmill owners and social justice activists, engineers and rock stars.
Listen to Michael Green, the Vancouver, B.C., architect whose TED Talk, “Why We Should Build Wooden Skyscrapers,” has been watched more than 1.1 million times.
“Every time people go into my buildings that are wood, I notice they react completely differently,” said Green. “I’ve never seen anybody walk into one of my buildings and hug a steel or a concrete column, but I’ve actually seen that happen in a wood building.”
Green wants to build 30-story skyscrapers of mass timber. He believes that’s part of the answer to housing the 3 billion world citizens who will need new homes in the next 20 years – while also reducing carbon emissions and increasing carbon sequestration.
“As an architect,” he said, “wood is the only material, big material, that I can build with that’s already grown by the power of the sun.”
Now listen to Russ Vaagen, a fourth-generation lumberman in northeastern Washington and vice president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. He just announced the formation of Vaagen Timbers, which will produce cross-laminated timber and glue-laminated beams – the two primary mass timber building materials.
“This is the revitalization of the timber industry,” Vaagen said. “Mass timber allows us to do the right thing at the right time. It’s not a political deal at all. It’s a mix of science and social science.”
Mass timber is the future, he said. It has a lighter carbon footprint; is at least 25 percent faster to build with and requires 75 percent fewer workers on the active deck; comes from forests that are renewable and that, in many cases, need thinning to reduce the danger of wildfire and disease; holds great promise as affordable housing; and even increases homeowners’ health and well-being, according to several studies of wood’s biophilic attributes.
In fact, Vaagen believes in the power of mass timber to bridge the urban-rural divide. The world’s cities need homes for millions of new residents. Rural timber towns and businesses need the work to feed their families.
Vaagen hired innovators from outside the timber industry to help him launch Vaagen Timbers: a Wall Street analyst, a former politician, a financier. A year from now, he wants to see a brand-new production plant churning out CLT next door to the Vaagan Brothers sawmill in Colville.
“I’m always looking for the disrupter,” said Lupine Skelly, who spent a decade on Wall Street analyzing the fashion industry before joining Vaagen’s team. “Mass timber is that disrupter. It’s completely changing the way we’ve built for 75 years.”
“We are moving construction out of the Dark Ages and into the future,” said Waugh, whose firm will complete construction of the world’s tallest cross-laminated timber tower, Dalston Lane, in June. It’s 10 stories tall, with 121 apartments and 40,000 square feet of commercial space.
“This is a construction revolution,” he said.
Last year, Waugh took his entire firm out of the country for a retreat. They returned to London as a “timber practice.”
Now, Waugh Thistleton only builds with wood.
Every great revolution needs an iconic city where the disruption took hold. Think Philadelphia. Pittsburgh. The Silicon Valley. And now, Portland.
And why not? Portland is not only known for its progressive social and environmental policies, but for its historic ties to the timber industry.
“Nearly half of the state’s land base is forested, and for years our state has led the nation in the production of wood building materials such as lumber and plywood,” said Timm Locke, director of forest products for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. “So it’s no wonder we’re now leading what promises to be a revolution in the way our nation builds commercial structures such as hotels, condominiums and office buildings.”
Locke led a tour of a few of the towers in late March during the second annual Mass Timber Conference. The buildings, even those still under construction, quickly won over his charges.
Kristin Slavin is an associate at PATH Architecture and a project lead for Carbon 12, an eight-story condominium tower that will – temporarily – be the nation’s tallest mass timber building when it is completed in August.
Even on a rainy, early spring morning in north Portland, with none of the building’s interior finishing completed, Carbon 12’s appeal was obvious.
The large windows provide expansive views of Portland and beyond; the wood brings nature indoors, creating a home that’s warm and comfortable, yet decidedly modern.
The condos will feature 1-3 bedrooms, depending on the client. “We can really adapt the space to their needs,” Slavin said. “As you can see, the design is very open, very flexible.”
In each unit, a significant portion of the structure will be exposed. “We want to showcase the wood, not cover it,” she said. “The natural elements really give a museum-quality backdrop to these homes.
“What we’ve heard from tenants in other buildings is that they’re looking for a modern way of building that’s energy efficient and environmentally sustainable. Portland previously built a lot of buildings with that old warehouse kind of feel. This is a whole new direction.”
The construction itself is an equally significant departure from the process used in traditional steel or concrete high-rises.
“The whole thing is sequenced,” Slavin said. “We modeled every screw, every connection in this building so we are not troubleshooting at the site. Every truck arrives when it’s time for that piece of the building. We have a tight site, with only space for two flatbeds, but that’s all you really need with these CLT panels.”
Every component was pre-manufactured by Structurlam, using Crosslam CLT. The wood was pre-finished as well, and pre-cut to fit its precise location in the tower.
Crosslam CLT is carbon negative and uses wood exclusively from sustainably managed forests.
On site, a handful of workers fit each mass timber component onto the structure. Framing took eight weeks. To build the same structure from concrete would take 20 weeks for the framing, Slavin said.
Because Carbon 12 is Portland’s first true mass timber high-rise, PATH took its time with the design, planning and construction, so the final cost figures will be about the same as if it were built from concrete, Slavin said. But future iterations will be less expensive, giving mass timber the edge.
Many of the design team’s decisions were intended to get this first timber tower permitted and built, so the second generation could benefit from the extra steps taken at Carbon 12.
Permitting took a full year, Slavin said, because everything about the project was new. PATH went to the state of Oregon for many of the permits, rather than the city of Portland, as the state is actively encouraging the use of mass timber.
“The steel was more expensive than the wood,” she said, “even though there is a lot less steel in the building.”
Using sensors placed beneath the building, Colorado School of Mines will monitor Carbon 12 for seismic resistance for 10 years, something never done before in the United States.
The wood also had to be specially treated with a fire-resistant coating, by order of the city fire marshal, even though all tests to date show mass timber performing better in two-hour fire tests than steel.
“We’ve gone above and beyond what’s required,” Slavin said. “We even tested the finish against water damage by placing a cup of water upside down on a piece of the wood for two weeks. There wasn’t a single streak in the wood.”
Slavin said the Carbon 12 condos have not yet been priced, but will likely be higher-end housing. Mass timber offers considerable promise as affordable housing, though, she said.
“There is a huge political undertone with housing here,” she said. “There’s a lot of talk about affordable housing.”
With its rapid construction schedule, prefabricated building components and energy efficiency, mass timber is one piece of solving the affordable housing crisis, Slavin said.
“When you are doing something for the first time, even simple is complicated.”
The words come from Thomas Robinson, founding principal of Lever Architecture in Portland. His firm designed Albina Yard, a four-story office building that was the first use of domestically fabricated CLT in a building-wide structural system.
Now, from its office in Albina Yard, Lever is designing Framework, a 12-story mass timber tower that will be built in downtown Portland, breaking new ground for CLT in the United States.
Robinson began his career designing very modernistic, steel-and-concrete museums and other institutions in the U.S. and abroad.
His conversion to a leader of the mass timber revolution came after Robinson moved to Portland and was enamored with the Pacific Northwest’s iconic building material.
“Connecting directly with the people who were making the materials for a project resonated with me in the same way the farm-to-table movement has changed how we relate to our food,” he said. “As a firm, we are very much driven by the ingredients – the materials – that go into constructing buildings.”
For Lever, “wood is part of our cultural resource,” he said. “The only question was: ‘How do we build within our culture and do it now?’ ”
Framework is a “completely different endeavor” for not only Portland but the U.S., Robinson said. It’s 90,000 square feet of mixed use: retail use and a bank on the ground floor, then five floors of offices, then five floors of affordable housing, and a community space at the rooftop level.
Portland developer project^ conceived of Framework as a way to “reflect the business ethos of Beneficial State Bank,” according to Anyeley Hallova, a partner in the development firm. The bank owns the property in Portland’s Pearl District where Framework will be constructed; it promotes social equity, economic opportunity and environmental responsibility.
“We explored how we could incorporate those values into a physical form,” said Hallova. “The great part about using wood for its environmental value is that it also has economic benefits. We understand the connection between a low-carbon building material and the creation of new local wood products jobs.”
That money paid for the research and testing needed to obtain building permits for a tall timber building, including fire and seismic tests. And because the Tall Wood grant requires that all test results be made public, other timber towers will be able to use the information to gain their own permits.
Unlike Carbon 12, where a steel core was used to appease regulators, Framework will use an all-wood core – actually eight wood cores that can rock with the ground, should there be a tremor.
Tests of that building system proved its seismic worthiness, Robinson said. Components in the building shift, then fit back together when the quake subsides. Tests on massive “shake tables” at Portland State University and Oregon State University showed an intact structure even after significant shaking.
“The biggest thing about mass timber that makes it resilient in a fire is its massiveness,” Robinson said. “After two hours, there’s a lot of wood left.”
In fact, the mass timber components that will be used to build Framework were the first in the world to meet the two-hour fire test, according to Robinson, demonstrating the safety of mass timber for high-rise construction.
“Mass timber building components are so thick that in a fire, an insulating char layer forms at a predictable rate, allowing them to retain their architectural integrity much longer than traditional stick-frame construction,” he said.
In the fire tests for Framework, the building’s limited steel showed the most diminishment after two hours, so engineers and architects protected the steel with additional wood. Then the steel passed the fire test.
All disruption creates pushback. Someone always feels threatened, often justifiably.
Jason McLennan tries to get out in front of that push, shoving the mass timber industry “to go much farther than they thought was possible.”
He’s an architect by trade, “but mostly a troublemaker.”
He counseled the 800 attendees at this spring’s second annual Mass Timber Conference to heed the words of Buckminster Fuller: “If you want to change something, make that which you wish to change obsolete.”
“Throw a better party,” McLennan said. “Find a better way to do things. Provide better solutions.”
The CEO and partner in McLennan Designs, he was a leader in “green” building and LEED certification until he “saw the need for a more holistic approach” and launched the Living Building Challenge in 2006.
Briefly, the challenge requires a building to generate more energy than it uses, to treat its own wastewater and provide its own drinking water.
“It’s not enough to be less bad,” McLennan said. “I’m interested in what good looks like. I, too, believe that timber is a big part of the solution – not the only part, but a big part.”
McLennan worked with Seattle’s Bullitt Center, which used mass timber, to meet the Living Building Challenge. When it opened, people lined up for blocks to see for themselves a building that is radically more efficient. Five or six Bullitts would equal one normal office building.
“They can run this building without fossil fuels,” he said. “It’s the most energy efficient building in the world. They’ve never had an energy bill or a water bill.”
McLennan prides himself in predicting future trends, and he sees mass timber as a “huge part of the future of the construction business.”
As soon as mass timber reaches a certain price point, the old way of building will be rendered price prohibitive, by McLennan’s estimation.
“By all the indicators that we care about, timber wins,” he said. “When something is better and then it becomes cheaper, that’s it – change is needed and will happen.”
“We’re at this moment in time where we have to make sure that we do things right,” he said. “We need to make sure that we don’t build into our industry’s DNA something that is not healthy.”
For example, he said, all the glues used to produce cross-laminated timber and glulam beams must be safe and healthy. The testing must be meticulous. All the forests from which the timber is removed must be managed responsibly. The certification must be beyond reproach.
“We have a moral responsibility,” McLennan said. “Don’t take short cuts with people’s health or planetary health. We have the opportunity here for a true legacy. But we have to go all the way.
“I need to be able to eat your glues. I need to be able to sniff your panels and not feel nauseous. I want you to create jobs for people, but I want those jobs to pay more money. I want them to be safer. I want them to be the kind of jobs that people want for their sons and daughters.”
McLennan has spent a lot of time studying the great disruptions of the past. Horse and buggies gave way to the automobile in 10 years’ time. In a single decade after World War II, cities in the U.S. changed how people lived and how they moved from place to place.
Solar power was a seeming fad until it hit the tipping point of affordability. Now China is canceling its coal plant orders in favor of solar installations.
“As soon as something is cheaper and better, it wins. And it’s a clean win,” McLennan said.
“You are the early adopters of CLT,” he said. “The disrupters.
“We will be building our buildings out of wood and out of biomass in the future. This is the future.”
Watch Treesource.org every Friday over the next month for the latest installment in our series on the mass timber revolution.
Correction: This story was edited to reflect the correct name of the mass timber manufacturer for Carbon 12 and the Bullitt Center’s architect.