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Towers of concrete and steel are expected in urban environments, but in a move that embraces the past and the future, wood may become the material of choice for more builders.
At Timber House in Park Slope, a 14-unit condo building set to open in the fall in the trendy Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood, residents will find themselves surrounded by wood ceilings and floors that offer a connection to nature. This will be the first condominium project in New York City to be built with mass timber, which consists of engineered and compressed layers of wood that are glued together for strength.
“People understand more than ever that being in a space built with natural materials makes a difference in how they feel,” said Eric Liftin, founder of MESH Architectures in New York City, the architect of Timber House. “There’s a wellness aspect of being surrounded by wood that includes a sense of positive energy and a sense of calm that are especially important in an urban environment.”
In addition to the appeal of its natural beauty, mass timber offers sustainability benefits such as a reduced carbon footprint, less construction waste and reduced emissions at construction sites. While mass timber construction has been common in Europe for years, it is anticipated to grow in popularity in U.S. cities since the 2021 International Building Code approved its use for buildings up to 18 stories. Previous codes capped mass timber buildings at a height of 85 feet, according to Paul Richardson, a mass timber expert and Boston-based principal of Buro Happold, a global consultancy. Residential mass timber buildings are also complete or under construction in Portland, Oregon; Cleveland and Seattle.
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Nearly 1,400 mass timber projects were under construction or being designed for residential, commercial or institutional use in all 50 states as of March, according to WoodWorks, a nonprofit resource based in Washington, D.C., for building with wood.
“Being in a mass timber building is sort of like wearing a cashmere sweater,” said Jodi Hogerton, marketing manager for New Land Enterprises, developers of Ascent, a luxury apartment building constructed with mass timber in Milwaukee. “The wood has a warmth and softness about it that makes you feel comfortable. It also has this nostalgic feeling because at first the wood smells a bit like popsicle sticks.”
Sustainability Benefits of Mass Timber
While wood buildings have been around for centuries, the technology to produce mass timber allows it to be used for bigger spans and offers more flexibility, Mr. Richardson said.
“Mass timber combines sawn pieces of young wood to create larger panels and beams,” Mr. Richardson said. “You can create larger beams and have more flexibility with mass timber.”
Depending on the engineering technique used, mass timber can be called cross-laminated timber (CLT), glued-laminated timber (GLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT) or dowel-laminated timber (DLT).
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“The main benefit of mass timber is that it significantly reduces the embodied carbon of new buildings, up to 50%compared to a similar building of concrete or steel,” Mr. Richardson said, referring to the greenhouse gas emissions that are produced during the construction process, including manufacturing, transportation and the disposal of building materials. “Structural engineers are looking at embodied carbon to meet the requirements of a variety of green building standards and to meet sustainability goals.”
Mass timber requires less energy to manufacture than concrete and steel, Mr. Liftin added.
“As new trees grow, they sequester carbon, which makes the product even better for the environment,” Mr. Liftin said.
Mass timber also works well with passive house design, which uses window orientations, insulation and other techniques to reduce the energy needs of a building, said Bill Caleo, developer of Timber House and co-founder of The Brooklyn House Co., a residential and hospitality developer based in Brooklyn.
“Mass timber and passive house designs are a natural fit because the goal of passive house design is to reduce carbon emissions and to have a more comfortable home,” Mr. Caleo said. “Mass timber comes from new growth forests and trees are a renewable resource.”
Timber House, an all-electric building, has a solar array on the roof to offset electricity use in the building, electric charging stations at each parking spot, triple-glazed windows, air-source heat pumps for heating and air conditioning and LED lighting. The condos are priced from $595,000 for a studio to $4 million for a three-bedroom unit.
The negative carbon footprint of Ascent is equivalent to taking 2,350 cars off the road for a year, Ms. Hogerton said. The mass timber for Ascent was shipped from Austria, but Mr. Richardson said that mass timber is increasingly available all over the U.S. and Canada.
“Mass timber weighs about one-fifth of concrete and requires fewer piles to be driven during construction, so we estimate it’s about 25% faster to build with mass timber,” Ms. Hogerton said. “It also saves money because of the speed and the fact that you need fewer people onsite. Construction is quieter, too, which makes people in surrounding buildings happy.”
Ascent’s mass timber arrived at the building site with each piece pre-drilled to connect and for electrical and plumbing installations. Modular design, especially with panelized facades, can speed up the building process, Mr. Richardson said.
“Mass timber construction can work like putting together a giant piece of IKEA furniture,” Mr. Liftin said.
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At Ascent, which is the tallest timber tower in the world at 284 feet with 25 stories, New Land Enterprises managing director Tim Gokhman was intrigued first by the aesthetics of mass timber and the idea that it could be a differentiator for a long-planned luxury rental tower in Milwaukee.
“Each digitally engineered piece of mass timber is unique,” Ms. Hogerton said. “Every apartment has wood ceilings, wood floors, a balcony and floor-to-ceiling walls of glass.”
The apartments at Ascent, which are all rentals, range from 573 to 1,999 square feet. A three-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom penthouse with lake and city views rents for $8,500. The top floor has two decks, two lounges with floor-to-ceiling windows, a wine tasting room and other amenity spaces.
“Ascent’s use of mass timber adds to the biophilic design of the building, which incorporates nature as much as possible,” Ms. Hogerton said.
The wellness amenities at Ascent include a pool with retractable glass walls, a sauna, a steam room and a fitness center.
The wood in mass timber buildings is typically left unfinished to showcase its beauty, said Mr. Liftin.
“The wood provides excellent insulation, which not only provides energy efficiency, but it also makes the buildings really quiet,” Mr. Liftin said. “We wanted this building to be modern but also warm and connected to the environment.”
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The 22-inch-high wood beams at Timber House pushed Mr. Liftin to raise the ceiling heights even higher to achieve a loft-like feeling.
“The structure and aesthetics of mass timber are more beautiful than high-rises made of concrete and steel,” Mr. Caleo said. “I think the condos at Timber House look like the old loft buildings in SoHo with exposed wood columns and wood ceilings, plus large-scale windows that flood the rooms with light.”
Architecturally, the design of buildings with mass timber as opposed to concrete and steel is similar, said Mr. Richardson. However, most architects design the buildings so that the wood is exposed as much as possible.
“It’s a tactile experience to be in a building made of wood instead of concrete and steel,” said Mr. Richardson.
As jurisdictions adopt new building codes, mass timber construction is likely to become more widespread. One concern some officials share is the resilience of mass timber against earthquakes, wind and especially fire.
“We had a grant with the U.S. Forestry Department and worked with the Milwaukee Fire Department and the Timber Products Lab in Madison to conduct intense fire testing with timber products,” Ms. Hogerton said. “We were able to demonstrate the durability of mass timber even if a sprinkler system failed. Our data shows that mass timber performs as well as or even better than other building materials during a fire, an earthquake or high wind.”
Mass timber chars on the exterior during a fire, which creates a protective layer over the interior wood, Ms. Hogerton said.
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Lumber costs have risen exponentially since the pandemic and supply chain issues have caused inflation on an array of construction materials and appliances. Mr. Caleo said that the mass timber used for Timber House was ordered prior to the pandemic, but he believes the price of mass timber will come down as inflation eases industry wide.
“I think everyone will do some form of mass timber construction in the future,” Mr. Caleo said. “Not only does it lower the carbon footprint of the building, but it’s easier to install when it comes in pieces and it’s a healthier way to build. The challenge is to get general contractors to understand it.”
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