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Mass Timber rising
Last week, elected officials, government agency reps, architects, forest products experts and the merely curious took a tour of Portland area sites that are using mass timber. The goal was to see for themselves, and maybe even touch wood.
As Valerie Johnson of plywood manufacturer D.R. Johnson of Riddle said, "People reach out to wood. It's beautiful and they just have to touch it."
D.R. Johnson is the only U.S. supplier of cross laminated timber panels. These are dimensional lumber layered, glued and pressed together at great pressure. The panels cut precisely to order, then trucked to a construction site for same-day assembly.
CLT is a subset of mass timber, which includes glulam beams, which have been around for decades (glulam beams still hold up the roof of Providence Park, the Portland Timbers stadium). Dimensional lumber is two-by-fours, two-by-sixes and so on, the precut product that is used on framing "stick built" structures.
The tour was organized by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, which has a $4 million annual budget, paid for by a back-end tax on forest products. Its goal is to advance public understanding of forest management. Created by the Oregon legislature, it's the sustainability-friendly face of the timber industry. Paul Barnum, executive director of OFRI, said "We are primarily a commodity commission, like there are commissions for hazelnuts, crab and blueberries."
Portlanders are used to working around giant timber beams — think of Wieden + Kennedy's celebrated space along Northwest 13th Avenue. But they are often original beams, exposed during renovation of an old warehouse or factory. Or they are reclaimed lumber, used as decorative accents to gain LEED points.
But Portland-area architects are racing to do more with mass timber. Specifically building from scratch.
The tour kicked off at the World Forestry Center and a viewing of the exhibit called The Future of Tall: Mass Timber Innovation.
This showcased the way large beams are joined together, with steel connector systems embedded in them, and featured a long, thick panel as a seating bench. High resolution videos showed construction sites such as Albina Yard in the Humboldt neighborhood (4713 N. Albina Ave.), with cranes swinging panels into place to build the four-story office. They also showed routers boring holes in beams, as a reminder that woodworking with less human intervention is much more accurate — with tolerances down to 1/16th of an inch.
First Tech Federal Credit Union 5100 NE 49th Way in Hillsboro
The first stop on the tour was the most impressive. First Tech Federal Credit Union does most of its business out of Oregon, and counts itself the credit union to staff of many big companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Intel.
Greg Mitchell, the First Tech CEO, praised Washington County for being "business-friendly" and said the building will hold 930 staff members when it is finished next year. A second, similar-sized building is planned.
In Hillsboro, literally next door to Intel, they are building a new headquarters, designed by Portland architects Hacker. The building will take advantage of the 17 acres of parkland. Built on a grade running down to a lake, the structure will be nothing like the boxy, functional spaces seen in office parks all over the suburbs.
"The floor slab steps down to mimic the topography, and a commons area will feel like an extension of the landscape into the community," explained Hacker architect Scott Barton-Smith.
"We wanted the design to reinforce the people first approach (of the credit union). Like First Tech is a pillar in the community, wood is warm and it is a regional material." (The project does use some structural steel, but wood is visible everywhere.)
Because wood is strong, it can be cantilevered. There are no beams on the edge, which reduces visual clutter and allows for floor to ceiling windows. "The best reason to use wood is it's beautiful. When I come down here I think 'I really want to work in this building.' "
Swinerton Builders' project executive Chris Evans was jazzed about the construction, as wooden beams were swung into place a few feet away and set on steel connectors with a tap of the hammer.
"One of the nice things about this timber is how fast we can set it, with it all being CNC'd out. Yesterday morning we set some CLT (panels) then during the middle of the day we added the jib to the crane, and by the end of the day we had set all the columns. We had two guys here. We're training our own crew, because none of us knew what to do when we got started. And they've done quite the bang-up job."
Con-way Leland James Center Northwest 22nd Ave. and Raleigh St.
The second stop was at Leland James, a commercial realtor with a showcase renovation office in the Con-way District of Slabtown in Northwest Portland. This former Con-way headquarters has been divided into open plan offices with large floor plates, no more dropped acoustic ceilings, and big windows. The mechanical penthouse on the fourth floor has been replaced by stylish office penthouse. Sky walks have been truncated and turned into sky porches.
In a video address, Principal at Cairn Pacific Noel Johnson said the idea was to build office space that would help attract talent, that would have "an ethos." The ground floor will have the usual retail suspects, including Orange Theory (fitness) and Good Coffee (good coffee).
Jeff Sackett, principal at Capstone Partners, talked about how they kept the tongue-and-groove floors, but had to add three feet of acoustical treatment, which at $10 to $15 a square foot was not cheap.
Ankrom Moisan Architects 38 Davis St.
The third stop was 38 Davis, home of its architect Ankrom Moisan Architects. Murray Jenkins stressed that while the building looks like a renovated warehouse from the outside, it was built from scratch, but always conceived as a mass timber structure. "We always get asked why we didn't use CLT, but when we designed it, it was not being made domestically. It only came from Austria and Australia, and that was a risk."
Steel beams are used to hang heavy sliding doors in the halls, but the only structural steel is a large beam hidden inside a glulam beam. It supports the materials library above, which is very heavy.
Judith Sheine, head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Oregon's School of Architecture & Allied Arts, spoke on behalf of the TallWood Design Institute.
She said that they are currently trying to persuade Phil Knight of the benefits of wood, and to use it in the new University of Oregon Science campus and the expansion of Hayward Field. She added that Portland Public Schools recently sent four people to a wood boot camp for architects and engineers, and that they seemed interested in building a nine-story mass timber replacement for Lincoln High School.
Carbon12, N.E. Fremont and N. Williams Ave.
The final stop was the Carbon12 building. The Kaiser Group was architect, developer and contractor on Carbon12. This is an eight-story condo tower on North Williams Avenue, opposite New Seasons. It is 85 feet to the top and 95 to the penthouse.
Ben Kaiser, CEO, said their recent nearby buildings, such as the Radiator, were based on the Bullitt Center in Seattle, but "The only thing we could afford to bring back to Portland was the timber framing. That was $625 a square foot, ours was $175 a square foot."
The model condo unit was decorated in pure white (Eames chairs, wool throws) and brown wood. This is gentrification writ tall.
On Carbon 12 Kaiser's team added the Cross-Laminated Timber component.
"As an architect, in a seismic zone, it's important that the building weighs 80 per cent less than a concrete building," says Kaiser. "So, if you think of that, in energy consumption, in safety, in shipping, in trucking and everything to do with construction, it weighs 20 percent of post tension concrete. Even if you remove the carbon sequestration attributes of wood, that building is 80 percent less than any comparable building. Then when you add on that the material is renewable the delta starts to get huge."
He liked the simplicity of the way it went up.
"We didn't even need a hammer or a saw."
Kaiser sees a radical shift coming.
"What's exciting from me is seeing it arrive on 12 flatbeds, you can almost see it as a 3D printed building. We're almost ready to push "purchase" on our Revit 3D modelling program and have it connect directly with a CNC machine at a factory. They even came with a two-part whitewash epoxy finish. Skipping all the middle men the shop drawings, that's rife with mistakes, it's almost a 3D printed building."
He said there was big Silicon Valley funding behind the technology, people who are thinking about construction very differently. "And Oregon has the best fiber in the world. In the environmental sense, we all need to get this story right, so environmentalists don't rightfully close this down."
"We did a calculation on how long it would take the Oregon timberlands to grow the wood that's in this building: 6.1 minutes," said Timm Locke, Director of Forest Products at OFRI.
Just to show they are up on the demographics — young people whose parents follow them to Portland — Kaiser Group decided the empty half lot on the south side of Carbon 12 is slated to be an elder housing building called Canyons.
"We've gone from wood nerds to construction nerds," joked D.R. Johnson CEO Valerie Johnson. Although the firm has been making plywood panels and beams for decades, making CLT panels means learning a lot of about the demands of construction, from cutting the product, to timing deliveries and even what order in which to load the truck for faster unloading.
"Working with architects, engineers and construction teams is really exciting," she said. "With concrete and steel you can make changes as you go." But CLT is different because it is prefabricated. Ultimately is quicker: "At Albina Yard, on average each floor was going up in two hours thirty minutes." She added that mass timber is a third lighter and a third faster than concrete and steel. "And it's renewable. An it's beautiful."
Doug Sheets is an associate at Lever Architecture, which designed the coming 12-story Pearl District tower Framework and Albina Yard. Sheets was Thomas Robinson's first employee, eight years ago. Lever is now based in Albina Yard. "It's nice being a in a sound, sturdy building," he says, compared to the old warehouse on NW 13th Avenue that had a big crack in the concrete.
Currently Lever is also working on a building for the Nature Conservancy at Southeast 14th and Belmont. It's a three-story building from the 1970s that they are renovating and doing a conference addition to it. (They will submit for permit in October.)
"Part of the story they want to tell is to feature Oregon products and wood. It will feature CLT as part of the structure."
What would it take for mass timber to go viral?
"Probably other states allowing it," says Sheets. "We do a lot of work in Southern California. Clients are interested but maybe jurisdictions aren't as interested. Especially high rise. But Framework getting built will go a long way to showing mass timber is viable."
Interest is definitely growing among architects and engineers. High rises might capture the imagination. "In Europe they're stockpiling panels in warehouses. They're building a lot. But here it's all made to order."
Paul Barnum, executive director of OFRI, "We are primarily a commodity commission."
What would it take to more of these buildings built?
"Number you need a strong market and we're glad architects and engineers are embracing it. And building codes have to be modernized to allow these wood buildings to be used."
Could Oregon be a player?
"I think we already are. We have more tall wood mass timber buildings being constructed in Portland than any other metropolitan city in the United States. People are looking to Oregon and to Portland for ideas of how to advance this technology."
The Future of Tall, Mass Timber Innovation
September 2017-September 2018
Oregon has become the epicenter of the most significant disruptive of building technology since steel and concrete altered urban skylines. The Future of Tall explores the present and future of mass timber and how it's rapidly gaining attention among architects, engineers, developers, and contractors.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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