Get ready for wooden high-rise build­ings

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY C.J. HUGHES

De­vel­op­ers have not used wood for much other than houses since the horse-and-buggy days. But the knotty build­ing ma­te­rial is mak­ing a come­back.

Seek­ing greener projects, which many con­sumers con­tinue to em­brace de­spite an anti-en­vi­ron­men­tal mood in Wash­ing­ton, builders are choos­ing tim­ber for of­fices, apart­ments and cam­pus build­ings, rather than the con­crete and steel that dom­i­nated con­struc­tion for decades.

Not ev­ery­body is on board with the trend, which is play­ing out from coast to coast. Con­cerns per­sist about wood’s flame re­sis­tance and strength, as well as its cost, which can be 30 per­cent more than tra­di­tional ma­te­ri­als.

But pro­po­nents scored a huge win last month when the In­ter­na­tional Code Coun­cil, an in­flu­en­tial ad­vi­sory group in Wash­ing­ton, con­cluded that some wooden build­ings could climb as high as 18 sto­ries, more than twice the cur­rent per­mis­si­ble height, with­out com­pro­mis­ing safety.

Con­sumers have al­ready shown in­ter­est.

“The con­nec­tions peo­ple have with wood can­not be un­der­es­ti­mated,” said Tim Gokhman, direc­tor of New Land En­ter­prises, which is be­hind two projects in Mil­wau­kee that are mostly made of wood. One is a seven-story of­fice build­ing. The other is As­cent, a 201unit lux­ury rental tower that, at 21 sto­ries, would be the tallest tim­ber build­ing in the Western Hemi­sphere. Both await ap­provals – in­clud­ing per­mis­sion to ex­ceed height re­stric­tions, which de­vel­op­ers say will not pose any dan­ger – but ex­pect to break ground this year.

Un­like the pro­duc­tion of con­crete and steel, which gen­er­ates huge amounts of car­bon diox­ide, the cre­ation of lum­ber is a rel­a­tively low-pol­lu­tion process, Gokhman said.

Trees are also an eas­ily re­new­able re­source, achiev­ing nearly their full size in a decade, said Ja­son Korb, an ar­chi­tect and a de­signer of both New Land projects. He added that the United States had some catch­ing up to do, as wooden tow­ers ex­ist or are un­der­way in Aus­tralia, Aus­tria, Canada and Nor­way, among other places.

“It’s re­ally start­ing to come into its own around the world right now,” Korb said.

For those who ex­pect wooden build­ings to re­sem­ble log cab­ins, the cur­rent crop may come as a sur­prise.

Most have metal or brick fa­cades, a stip­u­la­tion of build­ing codes fo­cused on fire re­stric­tions, which means the build­ings of­ten do not stand out from the out­side. In­side, though, gen­tly stri­ated lum­ber sur­faces are on full dis­play, as they are at Car­bon12, an eight-story, 14-unit con­do­minium in Port­land, Ore­gon, cur­rently the coun­try’s tallest wood struc­ture.

In fact, there is so much ex­posed and un­painted wood, in col­umns, beams and ceil­ings, it gives the con­dos the ap­pear­ance of a con­struc­tion zone. Half the con­dos, which range from $800,000 to $1.3 mil­lion, have sold since the build­ing opened last spring, said Ben Kaiser, the de­vel­oper.

Kaiser faced chal­lenges get­ting Car­bon12 built. The per­mit­ting process took al­most two years to wind through city and state agen­cies, largely be­cause wood build­ings in Ore­gon could top out at no more than six sto­ries, he said.

In the end, of­fi­cials con­cluded that wooden high-rises could help re­vive Ore­gon’s stag­nant tim­ber in­dus­try, Kaiser said. In Au­gust, the state in­creased the height limit to 18 sto­ries.

Car­bon12’s tim­ber, how­ever, did not come cheap, said Kaiser, whose of­fices were also built with tim­ber. In­deed, at $11 mil­lion, Car­bon12 was about 20 per­cent more ex­pen­sive to con­struct than a con­crete ver­sion would have been, which in some ways dic­tated that it be a lux­ury condo.

“It’s like any­thing – the first iPhone, the first flatscreen TV,” Kaiser said. “Costs are high be­cause not enough peo­ple are do­ing it.”

Wood is not what it used to be. The de­cline in old-growth forests means de­vel­op­ers can no longer count on huge sin­gle trunks to sup­port floors. In­stead, they rely on mass tim­ber, an en­gi­neered prod­uct made of lay­ers of spruce or fir pressed to­gether in a way that is sim­i­lar to ply­wood but with a more el­e­gant look.

Nail-lam­i­nated tim­ber for­ti­fies T3, a 3-year-old, seven-story of­fice build­ing in Min­neapo­lis’ North Loop neigh­bor­hood. Eighty-two per­cent of the steel-clad build­ing, whose name is short­hand for “tim­ber, tech­nol­ogy and tran­sit,” is leased to ten­ants like Ama­zon, which oc­cu­pies three floors. Ask­ing rents are about $23 a square foot, said David Schreiber, a man­ag­ing direc­tor at LaSalle In­vest­ment Man­age­ment, the land­lord.

Hines, the real es­tate in­vest­ment firm that de­vel­oped T3, took in­spi­ra­tion from a nearby of­fice build­ing it owns, which be­gan life as a 19th-cen­tury ware­house. De­spite ro­bust de­mand, the brick-and-tim­ber ed­i­fice had high turnover be­cause it lacked con­tem­po­rary fin­ishes like sound­proof­ing, said Steve Luth­man, a Hines se­nior man­ag­ing direc­tor. T3 kept its nat­u­ral aes­thetic, but Hines added touches like air­tight win­dows and a mod­ern heat­ing sys­tem.

Hines is tak­ing T3 na­tion­wide to cities like At­lanta, where a sev­en­story, 250,000-square­foot of­fer­ing, de­vel­oped with In­vesco Real Es­tate, will open in West Mid­town this sum­mer.

Den­ver and Chicago will get sim­i­lar tow­ers, which may be less ex­pen­sive to con­struct than their pre­de­ces­sors. Wood re­mains ex­pen­sive, but the as­sem­bly-line as­pect of mass-tim­ber pro­duc­tion, in which fac­to­ries make large pan­els, then as­sem­ble them on-site, saves time and la­bor costs.

“I think it works out to about the same,” Luth­man said.

For all the re­cent head­way, there have been stum­bles.

In March, a 1,000pound sec­tion of floor gave way at a mass-tim­ber build­ing un­der con­struc­tion at Ore­gon State Univer­sity. The floor was made of a rel­a­tively new prod­uct, cross-lam­i­nated tim­ber, in which lay­ers of wood are glued at right an­gles to each other. And two of the seven lay­ers broke loose, said Steven Clark, a univer­sity spokesman.

“I think it had a qui­et­ing ef­fect on the mar­ket,” he said. “Peo­ple be­gan to ask ques­tions.”


Work con­tin­ues last month on a pair of tim­ber of­fice build­ings in Brook­lyn’s Wil­liams­burg neigh­bor­hood de­vel­oped by the firm Flank.

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