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In Oregon and around the world, a new generation of timber-framed buildings is rising: taller, greener and safer than ever before.



BRIAN LIBBYIt’s easy to see how Portland finds itself with two new wood-framed, glass-enclosed buildings each called Framework. After all, the word denotes not just a supporting structure but a concept, which is what the recently completed Framework building at Northeast Sixth and Davis and the soon-to-break-ground Framework building in the Pearl District embody.

While wood buildings are as old as architecture itself, and here in Oregon our bountiful forests have made wood our signature and original building material for centuries, a new generation of timber-framed architecture is proliferating thanks to improved performance.

On a recent visit to the Works Partnership Architecture-designed Framework office building in Northeast, the interior seemed almost aglow, as sunlight permeating the glass façade made the timber walls and ceilings illuminate as if from within. While the glass walls make the five-story Framework look like a contemporary building from outside, take a closer look. The transparency reveals the wood frame, for a ship-in-a-bottle sense of wonder. Rather than hiding, the structure is the star attraction.

PHOTO: BRIAN LIBBY - The Framework building at Northeast Sixth Avenue and Davis St. by Works Partnership Architecture. What’s powerful about this Framework, its upcoming namesake across town or completed buildings in this new generation of timber-framed architecture, such as PATH Architecture’s Radiator Building (completed last year at 3530 N. Vancouver Ave.), is that they feel new and old at the same time. Looking up at Framework’s wood ceiling, I felt like I was in a cool renovated old warehouse as much as I was in a new glass-cubed office building.

Last fall the other Framework, this one in the Pearl by Lever Architecture, won the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tall Wood Building Prize Competition for its innovative timber framing. In addition to a plethora of national and international media coverage, the award brought a $1.5 million grant to test and thus prove that the 12-story tower’s primary structural material, cross-laminated timber (commonly known by its acronym, CLT), could withstand old wood buildings’ biggest enemy—fire—which it did easily. The multilayered sandwich of CLT developed initially in Europe and much more commonly used there, is also strong enough to allow taller, PHOTO: JOSHUA JAY ELLIOTT - The Framework building in Northeast by Works Partnership Architecture shows off the buildings wooden structure like a ship in a bottle. more resilient buildings to be structured this way, including even skyscrapers, instead of (or in some cases fused in a hybrid approach) with concrete or steel. Given how much energy it takes to make the other two materials, and how wood sequesters greenhouse-causing carbon from the atmosphere, it’s a far more sustainable choice. And considering Oregon’s thousands of square miles of native timber, it’s also a local choice, minimizing the impact of transporting materials across states or oceans while also investing in our rural communities that have spent a generation in decline as the timber industry has waned.

Perhaps most encouragingly of all given our current fears about a major Cascade Subduction Zone earthquake coming, this generation of timber framing is more seismically resilient than other methods, because wood buildings can sway with the shaking ground. Lever’s Framework building starts with a wood core strengthened with steel tensioning, a rigid backbone to which the more flexible outer floors and walls are tethered.

It’s nothing short of a fundamental re-thinking of what’s possible in architecture, and yet it’s born, both figuratively and literally, from Oregon’s roots.


Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell, among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or online at: portlandarchitecture.com

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