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Multiple Portland architects to use cross-laminated timber for new development of apartments and rowhouses

COURTESY: WAECHTER ARCHITECTURE AND JONES ARCHITECTURE  - Renderings showing eight small apartment buildings to be built of mass timber. The design maximizes corner units and windows. Northbound Collaborative will redevelop three acres just west of Northwest 29th Avenue and south of Nicolai Street or Highway 30. The developers concept is to build market rate apartments, as well as rowhouses that will house whole families, as happened in the 19th century.

Local developer Noel Johnson has tasked five sets of architects to experiment with mass timber for new housing and non-profit developments near Montgomery Park, at the Lower Macleay entry into Northwest Portland's Forest Park.

Waechter Architecture and Jones Architecture are designing four small apartment buildings each, totaling 144 units. Ben Waechter and Alan Jones are each architects of record for their respective designs that go before the city's for Design Commission on June 18. The project is targeting occupancy in 2023.

Rick Potestio (Potestio Studio) and Tuan Luu (Mildren Design Group) have partnered to design 14 mass timber rowhouses along NW Wilson Street. Tuan Luu is the architect of record; groundbreaking for the streets, sidewalks & utilities has started with home building expected to commence later this year.

SERA Architects have just started working on behalf of the Northwest Children's Theater & School to design a future home. One of the area's largest performing arts organizations, the non-profit's current home on Northwest Everett Street, is being sold.

The project is known as the Northbound Collaborative. Cairn Pacific's Rob Hinnen and Tom DiChiara have worked for the past five years on site assembly, clean-up, and land use actions needed to develop this mostly unused, three-acre area that is west of Northwest 29th Avenue and south of Nicolai Street.

COURTESY: WAECHTER ARCHITECTURE AND JONES ARCHITECTURE  - Renderings showing eight small apartment buildings to be built of mass timber. The design maximizes corner units and windows. Northbound Collaborative will redevelop three acres just west of Northwest 29th Avenue and south of Nicolai Street or Highway 30.


The eight apartment buildings will be arranged in a checkerboard pattern with small courtyards. This plan leaves unbuilt 40% of the site area while enabling 69% of apartments to be corner units, three times more than usual.

Ben Waechter told the Business Tribune about the benefits of pairing architects.

"I think what's really interesting is the collaboration between the architects on the site planning," he said of his work with Jones. "It's potentially the first project in Portland being developed like this."

The architects filed for an appeal for no build easements, which means the neighbors can't later build along the property line and block the view.

"Even though we're building zero lot line buildings, built all the way to the property line, we're allowed to have windows on all sides, except for the small section where there are the buildings actually physically touch," said Waechter.

The design was done before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is appropriate for a cautious, anti-viral future. There are more windows, which means better ventilation. The shape is what he calls a "square donut." The buildings have an atrium rather than narrow hallways where people might breathe on each other.

"As you're coming and going from your apartment to the outside, you're not passing through what you're typically passing through in a hallway."

Waechter and Jones frequently collaborated in person in the early stages of the design (pre-COVID-19) as they figured out the site and where to place the buildings. Waechter's studio is at North Williams and Shaver St, while Jones is at Northwest 9th and Davis St.

"It was impossible to design each individual building without knowing where on the property it would go." Once they got that figured out, they pursued their own designs, while keeping each other appraised of their broad ideas. Each of the eight buildings is unique, some of which is dictated by the site topography. But each firm chose their own materials and palette of finishes. Waechter is using a metal cladding, while Jones is using virgin wood.

"I think they're similar in enough ways. Ideally, they're different enough that it's creating variety within the space."

COURTESY: WAECHTER ARCHITECTURE AND JONES ARCHITECTURE  - One of the apartment buildings to be built of mass timber as part of Northbound Collaborative in Northwest Portland near Montgomery Park.


Alan Jones, principal at Jones Architecture, told the Business Tribune that it's not yet decided if they will use cross-laminated timber or some other form of mass timber like nail-laminated timber or mass-plywood panel (produced by Freres Lumber — an Oregon firm pioneering this option in collaboration with Oregon State's Tallwood Design Institute.)

(Jones Architecture has a CLT project called Central Lofts in downtown St. Johns, which is permitted but has not begun construction with R&H Construction.)

He supposes that R&H or Swinerton might build Northbound Collaborative since they have mass timber expertise. For residential buildings (compared to commercial), there are even higher performance expectations for fire and soundproofing. For the latter, the floor panels will have a thin, rubbery sound pad, then a layer of gypcrete, and then the flooring finish, probably a hardwood or tile.

He also worked on the Carson South Block in Slabtown, which helped bring wooden chic back to Northwest Portland. Cairn Pacific, in a development joint venture with Capstone Partners, also did the mixed-use projects the L.L. Hawkins and Leland James buildings nearby.


Rick Potestio of Potestio Studio said a city planner insisted they stagger the faces of the 14 row homes, making some homes smaller than ideal. Beginning in October of 2018, the project's land use process was complete by July 2019, but the project is just now obtaining the public works permits needed to start.

The townhomes will have Accessory Dwelling Units on the ground floor, like East coast brownstones, which can be used as businesses or separate apartments. The design allows a homeowner to rent out the ADU to have a lower monthly housing cost than renting something equivalent. "This has been a goal Rick and I have discussed for years, using design to unleash affordability without public subsidy," said Potestio.

They are using CLT for the floor plates and large glulam beams for the intermediate structure, plus some conventional (stick) framing for the walls. The exterior will be brick cladding.

"It's the desire of the client to explore the material for its opportunities and efficiencies." Since they are pre-drilled for electric and plumbing, he says, "We'll be able to land them on the walls pretty quick." Construction is expected to last 11 months.

Once the public infrastructure is built, individual building permits can be obtained. Potestio said he hopes they start building in the summer or fall, but has watched as the city shut down its permit bureau because of the COVID-19 pandemic, then go appointment-only.

"We don't know when and or how long, so we can't project a start. I'd say COVID set all projects back a couple of months."

Inclusionary Zoning

The projects stay under 20 units per building to avoid Portland's inclusionary housing ordinance, which requires 80% of the building's homes to subsidize the rent for the other 20%. Developer Noel Johnson says the only projects that pencil are the big, tall luxury towers where enough higher price renters exist to cross-subsidize, or those built where land is cheap, and market rents are lower.

"The way we structured our inclusionary zoning policy acts to hasten gentrification, push new housing away from transit, and restrict mainstream housing creation. At a time when our city faces a severe shortage of housing, it makes me sad for our City," said Johnson.


Johnson thinks developers are simply entrepreneurs, each project being a risky startup.

He told the Business Tribune that the rowhome portion of the development has lower risk because there are still people who can afford $1 million homes and want to live in Northwest Portland. Zillow's Home Value Index reports that the average cost of a four-bedroom house in the 97210 zip code is $1.1 million. This is because even during the coronavirus recession, the government has done a good job of propping up the value of assets (stocks and bonds).

"Homebuyers have wealth, renters have income, and inclusionary zoning only taxes renters," said Johnson.

He sees the "product," a new home, as something to "address the social need that you're observing. In Portland, we have a record-low production rate of housing relative to our in-migration, and we have an urgent need for a building that has a much lower embodied carbon footprint."

He believes mass timber houses and apartments, particularly on a plot of land that he has long watched go undeveloped, can help. "I lived across the street for many years."

Getting anything built in Portland takes two to three times longer than even in nearby jurisdictions because of the city's process. But Johnson believes when they open in three years, the economy will be doing better. "Economic problems will work their way through the system, and it will be hard for a lot of people, but the banks will be able to lend again, and people will be rehired." Besides, the 2009 global financial crash was caused by an oversupply of housing, but this is not the case today. "Housing-related investment and job creation will help us recover," believes Johnson.

"If it takes four or six years to deliver a housing unit, why would you wait four years?

Start now. And in four years you maybe should not start. Warren Buffet said, be fearful when people are greedy and be greedy when people are fearful."

He's the rare entrepreneur that admits that he is scared right now.

"Too few developers acknowledge that they are really uncertain about the future. What I do know is that this project has a lower carbon footprint and is next to Forest Park, recreation, and thousands of jobs. That's what we need, and it's my job to try and make that happen. If I don't try it, who will?"

It's also his job to keep the investors interested. Many of whom represent institutions, such as teachers' pension funds.

"It's just like dating. They love you until they don't. You have to keep showing up decently dressed, cut your hair, and brush your teeth and try hard. And if you do, you got a shot. Any entrepreneur has investors who want to invest in good projects and find good returns for their family or pension's future obligations."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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