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Hot shot Portland archtect designs and builds his firm's new office entirely out of mass timber, and will live on the top floor

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Waechter Architecture Principal Architect Ben Waechter, socially distanced, on the construction site of his company's three-story mixed-use office building on Mississippi Ave in North Portland. The all-CLT building is a first for Oregon, and expressies his vision of form and function united.

Architect Ben Waechter loves the word clarity.

"We want to make buildings that have a strong sense of place and a strong sense of experiential clarity," Waechter said one recent rainy February morning. He was standing by the tagged plywood of Waechter Architecture's future home office on North Mississippi Avenue and Skidmore Street. As of February, it was a wooden shell, echoing with the sounds of nail guns and generators. Nonetheless, move-in is expected in July 2021. His firm, already a star in Portland, designed the building and is acting as construction manager.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Waechter Architecture Principal Architect Ben Waechter, in the atrium of his company's three-story mixed-use office building on Mississippi Ave in North Portland. The open-air atrium will function as the reception area. The tall CLT panels between the windows are one piece, up to 40 feet long,

Waechter already lives above his rented office at 3928 N. Williams Ave., but he is building the new headquarters with a top floor for his family. It has been said that architects should never design a residence they wouldn't want their mother living on the top floor of. So, in this, he is putting his money where his mouth is.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - The building's vertical loads go straight down into the foundation. They are connected to the concrete by steel receiving pull-down plates which are welded to an embed plate. All the seismic load is taken by that steel. If there's a big earthquake the building should flex a little but stay up.

Euro

Atelier Waechter, meaning studio, is U-shaped, built around a courtyard that will function as the reception area. The first-floor units will be rented out for shops and offices. Waechter Architecture will take floor two. Waechter, the man, will live on floor three. The roof will be accessible and provides a view of the west hills and the German bar opposite, Prost.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Waechter Architecture Principal Architect Ben Waechter, insidef his company's three-story mixed-use office building on Mississippi Ave in North Portland. The all-CLT building is a first for Oregon. The spruce finish will remain: he has a zero sheetrock goal.

The fact that it is being built entirely of mass timber also makes it stand out. Except for the glass windows and the steel brackets which hold the vertical Cross-Laminated Timber members into the concrete foundation, it will all be wood — spruce, in fact. Waechter sourced the CLT not from an Oregon source but from KLH Massivholz GmbH in Austria because it would be all of one type of wood (spruce) and because the company could make everything, including the stairs, and have it fit together perfectly.

"They've been doing it so long, and they were the only company that had the experience to cost-effectively do everything." The framers are Mustang Ridge Construction, experts in CLT based in Salem.

Waechter stresses it is a team effort between Waechter, KPFF, KLH, and Mustang Ridge.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Waechter Architecture Principal Architect Ben Waechter chose to source cross-laminated timber not from an Oregon source but from KLH Massivholz GmbH in Austria, because it would be all of one type of wood (spruce) and because the company could make everything, including the stairs, and have it fit together perfectly. The stairs float 3 inches from the wall, which looks good and is good in an earthquake.

Shopped

On the ground floor, Waechter Architecture will have a woodshop, a place primarily to make models. (Waechter's grandfather Robert Street was a builder and a woodworker, while his paternal grandpa Heinrich Waechter was a Bauhaus-style architect in Germany and also had a woodshop.) Ben Waechter believes wooden architect models are superior to 3D CAD models for thinking about a building's form.

"Physical models allow us to view everything at once and be able to design things that are that are truly whole and complete," he said.

They allow the architect to get close to the final form, touch it, poke their nose in the windows, and take off the roof.

"We're trying to make places that feel the best to be in. The places that for us that really resonate have that strong sense of place that you enjoy being in."

He adds, "It can be in material clarity. It can be in spatial clarity."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Apart from the concrete foundation and some steel brackets, the building is all cross-laminated timber. 'And a lot of nails,' adds Waechter.

Explaining "spatial clarity," Waechter said, "Rooms that feel better to be in tend to be whole and complete. They tend to be either rectangular or circular. Rooms that feel awkward to be in are L-shaped, for example. We like to think of rooms as being vessels, and you're being held by this vessel. So, if the vessel has clear boundaries and you can perceive the space clearly, that feels good to be in. If you're in a space that is odd-shaped or L-shaped or complicated, those spaces tend not to feel as good to be in."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Workers continue in freezing temperatures of Waechter Architecture's three-story mixed-use office building on Mississippi Ave in North Portland.

He has the same theory about material clarity. "When you go into a room that's made of up of 20 different materials, it feels chaotic. It doesn't feel good. If one wall is brick, and one wall is sheetrock, and another wall has wallpaper, it just feels convoluted and chaotic."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - The north facing side of the Atelier Waechter is windowless, per code, because one day the Thai restaurant could be replaced by a tall building that blocks them. It will eventually be finished with weathering steel, which is mild steel mixed with copper.

Inside out

Waechter HQ won't just be made of wood. It will look wooden inside. The CLT panel floors will have a slab of concrete poured over them and contain the liquid underfloor heating and cooling. Everything else, though, will have the pinkish-beige glow of spruce. Water pipes, metal air ducts and electrical cables will all be hidden behind wood. Only the sprinklers will be visible. Even the elevator bank, which must be a certain width, will be hedged in by wooden panels.

The building floor plan is basically two boxes connected by a hallway. Of spatial and material clarity, Waechter said, "In our work, we try to marry those two things together…. The structure of it is also the finished material."

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JAIME VALDEZ - Waechter Architecture Principal Architect Ben Waechter stands in the scaffolding of his company's three-story mixed-use office building on Mississippi Ave in North Portland.

High ceilings

It is the first project in Oregon that's completely made of mass timber. "There's a lot of CLT projects happening now, but they're primarily CLT floors. This is the first building to use CLT uprights. The walls and floors, and even the stair, were all prefabricated in the factory, cut into pieces, delivered to the site as a kit of parts and put together like a puzzle."

Mustang Ridge used a tower crane to assemble the pieces over three and a half months. Some of the vertical panels are single pieces, three stories high or 40 feet. (CLT is a series of planks placed perpendicular to a series of similar planks and glued together under high pressure. It can be cut into shapes or drilled for attachments and acts like lightweight concrete with a smaller carbon footprint.)

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Holes in the CLT panel ceiling for utilities at Atelier Waechter. When it is done most utilities except the sprinklers will be hidden for the sake of spatial clarity.

He dispels the myth of rapid assembly or erection.

"The floors go really fast, but the 40-foot wall panels (or columns) and the spandrel panels between them are heavy. Even the smallest pieces in the building really need to be lifted by crane."

The building's vertical loads go straight down into the foundation. They are connected to the concrete by steel receiving pull-down plates which are welded to an embed plate. That steel takes all the seismic load. If there's a big earthquake, the building should flex a little but stay up.

200-year building — at least

Inside, for all his efforts at unity, he knows things will change.

"It's built out of robust materials, that in theory, it would last at least 200 years. If it's properly maintained, it could last indefinitely because of the quality and robustness of the materials."

But if he came back in 10 years and found orange extension cables snaking across the office floor?

"No building is perfect. We're doing our best, but it's impossible to be ultimately flexible. We're just trying to have this balance between flexibility and a strong sense of place."

The architect does have one more dream for Atelier Waechter: "My goal is to have zero sheetrock in the project."

PHOTO: JEREMY BITTERMANN - Some classic Waechter work: Pavilion House.

PMG: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Some classic Waechter work: Blu Dot showroom interior remodel in the Pearl District.

PHOTO BY LARA SWIMMER COURTESY OF WAECHTER ARCHITECTURE - Some classic Waechter work: The Society Hotel in Bingen, Washington.

Smooth move

Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati inspires Waechter's minimalism and three years living in Italy and working for Renzo Piano. At Furioso Vineyards in Dundee, Oregon, the roof over the glass-enclosed tasting room seems to float, rather like the Veterans Memorial Coliseum roof. At the Society Hotel in Bingen, Washington, the rooms are arranged like cabins, in a circle, and the ugly middle distance industrial view is edited out in favor of the close view of the other hotel guests and the long view of the Columbia River. In a remodel of a warehouse for the Blu Dot showroom in the Pearl District, Waechter covered up the room's odd edges with an undulating screen of wooden slats.

At Atelier Wachter, even the heavy wooden staircase floats three inches off the wall. That makes it sculptural and gives it some wiggle room, so it doesn't break apart in the Big One.

KPFF, the structural engineers, designed the vertical and lateral structural system. They developed a custom detail for connecting the concrete foundation to the CLT wall panels.

Waechter says, "Our challenge was connecting the wood to the concrete. And so, in this building, we decided to express that connection on the inside."

In a slight break with his smooth minimalism, Waechter is leaving the connectors exposed on the interior.

KPFF also used concealed fasteners, including Ricon connectors, for the wood-to-wood connections, which keep the walls and floor looking smooth and unified.

The north-facing side of the building is windowless, per code, because one day, the Thai restaurant could be replaced by a tall building that blocks them. The building will eventually be finished with weathering steel, which is mild steel mixed with copper.


Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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