BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a recent Portland Tribune column, I wrote about the Flex building on 82nd Avenue by Lever Architecture. But what's really of interest to me these days is the movement that Flex is a part of towards more and more buildings like we used to build them: out of wood.
Designed as a speculative venture for a developer client, the project takes its name from the industrial building type it also is. Flex spaces like these often have roll-down doors and interior mezzanines. In this case, I'd imagine it will house commercial office tenants rather than industrial businesses, but as we've seen throughout the city and other cities, companies and especially creative companies have increasingly traded class-A office space for creative office space and flex industrial, which, if they're not the same thing, at least share certain similarities: concrete floors, exposed ceiling beams and mechanical equipment.
In the case of Flex with a capital F, however, the fit and finish, as well as the form and structure of the building, are just a little bit nicer and more refined. The building is timber-framed, giving it a beautiful and evocative ambiance. The sloping roof form, like Lever's design for L'Angolo Estate's tasting room among the vineyards in Yamhill County, gives the whole building a sculptural quality, and a series of skylights combine with the cladding the entire wdith of the building in glass as it faces 82nd Avenue, give Flex a lovely quality of light. The building is even cantilevered on its long entrance side facing the parking lot, creating a natural overhang that shades a long sidewalk.
Beyond its architectural quality, this building is interesting to me as the symbol of a broader shift that seems to be happening in the building industry.
For the past couple years, I've been writing excitedly about the rise of mass-timber highrises. Enabled by a new-generation wood product first utilized in Austria and the rest of Europe, cross-laminated timber, we're seeing the dawning of a new age in world architecture, when timber-framed skyscrapers will rise in large cities. And this relates directly to Lever Architecture, of course, because they're the designers of what is poised to become the first mass-timber highrise in the United States if it breaks ground as planned later this year.
There's no doubt that CLT-enabled highrises represent something very exciting—maybe the most exciting phenomenon in my career as an architecture writer, along with the rise of sustainability itself. Given that wood is Oregon's bounty more than practically any other place in the world, it gives the state a powerful economic incentive and opportunity: to revive the once-robust timber industry here, by building CLT out of Oregon trees. Then there's the fact that wood of course sequesters carbon, making wood buildings on a mass scale a key tool in combating climate change, especially considering how carbon-intensive steel and concrete are to produce. And then there's the fact that timber buildings are more earthquake-resilient. If you couple all that with the wonder of seeing wood skyscrapers for the first time in history, it's exciting. The fact that the first American wood highrise could come from Portland, just as the first curtain-walled office building (the Equitable Building by Pietro Belluschi—now know as the Commonwealth) innovated back in the 1940s after World War II, helps reinforce the notion of Portland and Oregon as a pioneering culture.
Yet more recently as I've been writing about wood buildings, it has occurred to me that the allure of CLT highrises may have been somewhat of a distraction from the fact that there's a bigger story here of wood buildings' recent proliferation. After all, there's no CLT used in Flex. And while Lever's upcoming Framework is exciting as the nation's first timber highrise, there will ultimately probably be more Flexes out there than Frameworks.
At a certain small scale—namely mixed-use buildings of only a couple stories and single-family houses—we have nearly always built with wood because it's more economical. Seen many steel-framed houses? Neither have I. But where wood buildings are really gaining on steel and concrete is in the realm of medium-sized commercial buildings. "There’s a lot of interest and energy behind the idea that wood buildings aren’t just for houses anymore," Jonathan Orpin of New Energy Works told me recently. (In full disclosure, Orpin's company is a sponsor of this blog.) "That includes glulams that have always been in the commercial realm, and it also includes not just CLT but NLT [nail-laminated timber] and DLT [dowel-laminated timber]." And, Orpin adds, "where CLTs do start to shine is six floors and higher."
While breakthroughs in the building code at the highrise scale are being made with the help of CLT, David Keltner of Hacker Architects recently told me he didn't think that was what was driving the emergence of more medium-sized wood buildings in the two to six-story range. Hacker is also building a number of wood buildings these days, such as the First Tech Federal Credit Union headquarters in Hillsboro. He says the real change has come from the knowledge being gained about how to erect wood buildings more quickly than steel and concrete. Mass-timber buildings can have most of their walls, ceilings and floors prefabricated off-site. That saves lots of costly construction time on the job site. But to benefit from that streamlined construction process requires a lot of intricate scheduling and sequencing.
"If you just walk into a room and you compare concrete, steel and mass timber on Day One and say, ‘Compare these three systems for me, and they do it in isolation,' the CLT and mass timber doesn’t stand a chance," Keltner said. "The thing that makes it economical and competitive is the broad range of scheduling—which is not a slam dunk. You have to make all these other decisions that follow it. If you build your frame real fast, what good does it do you if the next step doesn’t go any faster?"
Even so, Keltner is very much pro-wood. "The bigger point is getting it to pencil and bringing it to market is a real thing," he says. "The path is the early involvement of your contractor and the suppliers like your strugutral engineers. It’s big getting the suppliers involved. Say you’re a developer and you’ve just got your team assembled and picked an architect. Your first meeting, how do you get a supplier or a sub to show up that early? They just want to give a bid. But the whole industry is realizing that’s how it has to happen, that they have to provide that kind of service to get the competitive advantage it represents. Having the right partner as a contractor is a win-or-lose proposition."
Keltner also sees most wood buildings as still having a fair amount of concrete or steel. "In our analysis, the way to go in terms of durability is using concrete in conjunction with the wood," he says. "We’re doing a mass-timber building right now, but with a ton of steel with the connections. And you still have to have a foundation. Nobody’s figured out how to go underground and build a parking garage with it. And we have concrete topping that goes over the CLT. You need sound separation between floors, you need impact resistance, you need something durable you can clean. Concrete ends up being our horizontal sheers. We’re using CLT and glulams in our new building in conjunction with concrete and steel connectors. It’s always performed well for that, and the advent of CLT is just helping you with how you make the floors and how many beams you have." In fact, Keltner adds, "I could have built our new office building 20 years ago, all of it except CLT. But you could have found a substitute for it."
"I think the groundswell is more economic," the architect says. "Steel and concrete are getting more expensive. Wood is more available, and now with some more plants in the US you can get it a little more affordably. And I think you’re going to see a lot."
Now that I think about it, Lever's Flex building doesn't even fall into that category of medium-sized commercial buildings, at least in the sense that it's all one story. Yet at 19,000 square feet it's not a small structure. And if it was erected quickly by prefabricating many of its wood components, I don't think cost alone will be what attracts tenants. On top of all the economic arguments for wood, it's continually compelling to me how people just seem more comfortable and happy in wood buildings.
"When you walk into a building that is made of wood, it just feels right," Keltner says. "You feel good about where you are. You don’t have to do math or get a spreadsheet to justify that."
Lever's Thomas Robinson has seen how people react to wood buildings because the firm is located in one: Albina Yard, which the firm designed and moved into two years ago. "People coming from other types of spaces are always really excited to be here," he says. "It’s interesting to me that our clients, a lot of them prefer to have meetings here." He believes the response one has to wood is almost instinctual. "I think it’s almost like the difference between a kind of raw material versus a more processed material. You can understand it: where it comes from. It has a life to it."
In that way, Robinson likens the proliferation of wood buildings here to the rise of the Oregon wine industry: a movement that was not about economics—the price of the wine—but instead about quality. "Oregon is a relatively young state in a young country. I don’t think when the wine industry started here people thought it would be very big, but now it’s an important part of the economy," he says, "and it’s also perceived as a really important part of the culture. I think the idea of mass timber and buildings, I think there are parallels."