America's first-ever Mass Timber Conference draws 500 wood-loving builders to Portland

COURTESY: LEVER ARCHITECTURE - At 12 stories in height, the Framework project by Lever Architecture will be Portlands first tall CLT building.Portland architect Thomas Robinson is leading a revolution by bringing cross-laminated timber construction of high-rise buildings to Portland and the rest of the United States.

His two new multi-story building projects — Albina Yard in North Portland and Framework in the Pearl District — are setting the pace for cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction. He hopes it will start a trend.

Robinson’s mass wood and CLT style is fresh in the USA, although it is well known in Europe. The work of his company, Lever Architecture, was on display along with works by 55 other mass wood companies at the Mass Timber Conference in Portland last week.

BUSINESS TRIBUNE: DEAN BAKER - Portland Architect Thomas Robinson stands by a model of Framework, the wooden building his company is going to build at 430 N.W. 10th Ave. CLT is often called “plywood on steroids” because it consists of massive timbers made as strong as steel by gluing together layers of wood. Mass timber involves any kind of big chunks of manufactured wood product used in construction.

Organizers Tom Waddell of the Missoula, Montana-based Forest Business Network brought this first-ever American conference to the Portland Marriott. It drew 500 builders from around the United States and as far away as British Columbia, Australia, Finland and Germany.

They are getting on an international bandwagon for CLT, and Robinson is one of the drivers. Proponents say CLT is cheaper, lighter, more flexible and more environmentally friendly than steel or concrete.

“We named our company Lever for a reason,” Robison said. “We are not just interested in our projects themselves. We want them to be catalysts for other projects,” he said. “We want people to use this technology so it becomes just another choice.”

Innovative architecture

Robinson said Portlanders should acknowledge and celebrate this city’s history of innovation in architecture, such as Pietro Belluschi’s work.

Belluschi’s Commonwealth Building in downtown Portland and his Portland Art Museum, among many other designs, were revolutionary in their time in the 1930s and 1940s.

Robinson’s Albina Yard, now framed up and nearing completion, was the first office building in the U.S. to use domestically fabricated cross-laminated timber.

COURTESY: LEVER ARCHITECTURE - Albina Yard, another project by Lever Architecture, is the first office building in the U.S. to use domestically fabricated cross-laminated timber. At 12 stories, Framework will be America’s and Oregon’s first tall CLT building. However, America has been slow to catch on to CLT.

“In Europe, their codes for CLT are more advanced than ours,” said Waddell. “They’ve done all the testing needed for fire, for seismic activity, whereas we haven’t really started. The code officials here, they aren’t satisfied yet. There is more work to be done.”

The Oregon Legislature is catching up. Last year, it approved the use of CLT in buildings four to six-stories high. Planning to go twice that high, Robinson said, his firm will prove CLT’s seismic resilience while construction is under way.

“In Australia there is a CLT building called Forte that is 12

stories tall,” Waddell said. “The entire building is wood except for the concrete pad; even the elevator shafts are wood. There is no concrete or steel.”

A 14-story CLT apartment building was recently completed in Norway, and the Swedes have approved a 34-story CLT building in Stockholm. About 15 tall wood buildings have been completed over the past year in Australia, Canada and Europe.

Robinson’s Framework building is in that ballpark. He’s built the four-story, 16,000-square-foot Portland Albina Yard at 4713 N. Albina. He also plans the 12-story CLT Framework building at 430 N.W. 10th Ave. It will be sited on Beneficial Bank-owned property where Albina Community Bank stands now. Both banks will be housed in the new building.

“The genesis of the project was Albina and Beneficial wanted a building that would fit their ethos, and they were looking at sustainable material, so we thought of CLT,” Robinson said.

Lever Architecture had already built the Union Way commercial passageway just south of Powell’s Bookstore.

“It’s built of wood grown on a Boardman tree farm, so we favored using resources that are available here, Robinson said.

“It’s like a chef in Portland looking at the land in Oregon, and using the resources that are close-in and available to us. It’s economical because you aren’t shipping from somewhere else in the world.”

The ground floor of Framework will be a tall-wood exhibit, lobby and café, along with the Albina Bank. There will be five floors for offices and five floors of housing, and a rooftop community garden.

Pros and cons

Lever is working with Project, a real estate developer, and investor Home Forward, all based in Portland, to build Framework.

Proponents argue the use of wood is good for the environment. Although built of dead trees, wood beams sequester carbon in wood frames, while concrete emits carbon dioxide, they said.

BUSINESS TRIBUNE: DEAN BAKER - Tom Waddell, vice president of marketing and sales for the Forest Business Network, who brought the conference to Portland.The advocates also argue wood-beam buildings are fire resistant, charring but not burning, and they point to twisted steel beams collapsing in some fires while wood beams remain intact.

European engineers have found CLT structures sound in a world where earthquakes happen, Waddell said. In this country, the studies have been slower in coming, and so zoning codes have lagged behind.

“But we thought there would be interest in mass timber,” Waddell said, “And it has been for sure. We’ve got more than 500 showing up for this conference.”


Framework was featured recently in Newsweek Magazine.

“Portland, Oregon, home to all things craft and micro, is emerging as the hub of a potential construction revolution that relies on materials from a century ago: wood.” Newsweek wrote.

“Buildings as high as 12 stories made of wood — or, more specifically, multilayered wood panels such as cross-laminated timber engineered from Douglas fir cut down in the state’s forests — are cropping up across the city with hopes of spurring new projects here and across the country.”

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