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As trends shift toward mass timber, AEC firms are watching the demand curve

Mass Timber

As trends shift toward mass timber, AEC firms are watching the demand curve

Swinerton’s New York office expects its first projects to be luxury residential.


By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | January 11, 2022
One of Swinerton's mass timber projects has been the Wingspan Conference & Event Center in Hillsboro, Ore. Images: Swinerton
The general contractor Swinerton has worked on 20 mass timber projects, including the Wingspan Conference & Event Center in Hillsboro, Ore. Images: Swinerton

2021 might be remembered as the year when mass timber finally broke through as a construction material in the U.S.

Last year, the International Code Council updated its International Building Code by adding three new construction types that allow for the use of mass timber for construction up to 270 ft tall, or the equivalent of about 18 stories. In October, New York City, the country’s largest construction market, approved the use of mass timber for buildings up to 85 ft tall, or the equivalent of six to seven stories. One month later, the insurance firm Zurich North America expanded its coverage to $50 million per project for commercial construction using mass timber.

This is all good news for the general contractor Swinerton, which opened its first office in New York last year, and whose Portland, Ore.-based Timberlab brand has been involved in 20 mass timber projects across the country including the residential tower Ascent in Milwaukee, Wis., which at 284 ft and 25 stories will be the tallest mass timber building in North America when it’s completed in the summer of 2022.

Ascent, in Milwaukee, Wis.
The 25-story Ascent in Milwaukee, Wis., will be the tallest building constructed with mass timber in North America upon its completion.
 

Developers that in the past have been leery about including mass timber in their projects are now giving it a second look. “There definitely pent-up levels of interest,” says Andrew Pearl, Vice President and Division Manager for Swinerton’s New York office.

PERMITTING AND LABOR AVAILABILITY ARE CHALLENGES

Swinerton’s recent mass timber projects have ranged from a 17,000-sf student center in Portland, to a massive curved timber roof made from 3.3 million board ft of Douglas fir that’s part of the $2 billion redevelopment of Portland International Airport. Pearl expects that Swinerton’s first mass timber projects in New York City are likely to be outside of Manhattan (because of the new code’s height limitations) and serve the luxury residential sector.

Pearl didn’t want to speculate about whether or when New York City might be receptive to allowing mass timber for higher buildings. “Right now, we’re just excited about this first step.”

UCal Santa Cruz Kresge College residence hall.
Swinerton was on the Building Team for the University of California-Santa Cruz's Kresge College Residence Hall, for which Structurlam supplied the mass timber components for 110,600 sf of new construction and 150,000 sf of renovation.
 

While there has been a handful of mid-rise mass timber projects in New York so far, getting the Big Apple up to speed about this kind of construction will take some time, says Pearl, who anticipates that the permitting process will be part of that learning curve. As for finding skilled labor that’s adept at mass timber construction, Swinerton is likely to take what Pearl calls a “hybrid approach,” where Timberlab comes in with its own crews to get a project organized and started, and then hires local labor as needed.

To that end, Pearl recently joined the board of the New York branch of Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit organization that takes a multifaceted approach to affordable home repair and community revitalization that includes workforce development.

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