Turning Back to Timber

Look to Washington’s history to tackle the climate crisis

By Matthias Olt June 1, 2022


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Seattle magazine.

We can thank lumber for the success of Seattle and many of the towns that have sprung up across the Puget Sound region. From the logs that rolled across Skid Road in the early days of Pioneer Square to the mills that supplied the country’s hunger for Washington’s wood, nothing is more quintessentially Pacific Northwest than timber. 

More than 150 years later, it’s fitting we lead the turn back to timber to tackle one of the biggest global crises of our time: climate change. 

Our region hosted some of the first explorations of the use of mass timber in high-rise buildings. Framework Tower in Portland, a 12-story all-wood tower designed by Lever Architecture, would have been groundbreaking until financial considerations led to its cancellation. Despite the ultimate failure of that project, the potential it realized around mass timber set in motion the slow revolution around building materials that we’re still advancing today.

Prompted by a shared concern for the environment and long-lasting impact of carbon emissions, architects and engineers still look to this technology for radical solutions.

Timber is a revolutionary building material. It is sustainable, and beautiful with a natural aesthetic that is unmatched in its category of building products. Beyond even that, the energy required to produce wood is only a third that of steel and one-fifth that of concrete.

In 2016, we performed a feasibility study focused on the economics of mass timber, and we found that mass timber quickly becomes cost-neutral due to speed-to-market and its ease of use compared to traditional methods like concrete or steel. 

Since that early exploration in 2016, owners and developers have become less reticent in using mass timber for their projects and architects are happily obliging. The Atelier Jones-designed Heartwood apartments — an eight-story, 126-unit workforce housing project on First Hill that would be Washington’s tallest — is set to break ground this year. A multistory office mass timber tower on the Seattle Waterfront is also on its way. 

Elsewhere, Milwaukee will soon see a luxury apartment called Ascent pierce the skyline as the tallest mass timber tower in the world. Designed by Korb + Associates Architects and set to deliver this year, the apartment tower is being closely watched by private developers and urban planners. 

Delivery of projects like these is an inflection point for mass timber, which has historically been regarded by the risk-averse commercial real estate industry as too new and unproven. Early success breeds mass adoption, and the adoption of mass timber as a mainstream building material could have a very positive effect on our planet, especially as mass timber suppliers source wood from sustainably farmed sources, like those across Washington state. 

According to the Infrastructure Report Card, the United States has more than 617,000 bridges. Almost 8% are considered structurally deficient. More than 4% of the 8,358 bridges in Washington state are in poor or worse condition.

Between the infrastructure bill and President Biden’s Build Back Better framework, much-needed conversation about the state of our public infrastructure and climate change is happening. Closer to home, we have an opportunity in Seattle to think creatively and sustainably about our built environment, including the public realm. The increasing availability of mass timber means it’s easier than ever to build resiliency and well-being into the very structures that support our city.

Since mass timber construction is cost-competitive with reinforced concrete, it succeeds with less on-site labor and faster construction schedules with lighter foundations and fewer finishes. This is especially important for public infrastructure such as bridges and rails, where costs and speed of delivery are so important to all of us who use them.

Climate change affects us all. Increased wildfires, drought and extremes of temperature have dominated local headlines in recent years. Environmental, social and economic resiliency will determine the success of our cities. Until recently, sustainability was considered a differentiator in the business world, a potential competitive advantage.

Today, it is understood as a foundational imperative of any enterprise, observed by shareholders, demanded by clients and communities and regulated by legislators. Seattle has a unique opportunity to embed this ethos in the very structures we build to support and connect the city, such as our viaducts, roads and power grids.

The revitalization of our timber industry through the design, manufacture, construction and adoption of mass timber can create the framework for a network of resilient cities and communities across the region. The Pacific Northwest’s natural resource provides everything we need to create safe, well-paid jobs, add stability to our economic base and healthy, livable communities. Mass timber honors our history and can carry us into a sustainable future.

Matthias Olt is design director in architecture at B+H Advance Strategy in Seattle.

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