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Proposed new tower in Pearl District aims to make Oregon a growing force in wood construction.



RENDERING COURTESY: LEVER ARCHITECTURE - Framework, made from Cross Laminated Timber, will be a home for Beneficial and Albina banks, plus B-Corp offices and dozens of affordable housing apartments. Eschewing structural steel and concrete, the building has a slot in the front to flaunt its wood core.

First things first. This wooden 12-story tower they want to build in the Pearl District: Will it burn down or fall over?

No, says Thomas Robinson, principal and founder of Lever Architecture in, who is on the forefront of working with cross laminated timber (CLT).

Wood of this thickness can resist fire for two hours. And the structure will have inbuilt “fuses” or metal joints that can bend and absorb the shock of a big earthquake, then be replaced with new ones.

The tower, called Framework, will be built starting October 2016 and finished in 2017, at 430 N.W. 10th Ave. The landowner, Beneficial Bank Corp, will have its offices there, and a branch of Albina Community Bank (which it owns) at street level. The building will have spec offices and small, affordable housing units owned and managed by the housing authority Home Forward.

DINA AVILA - Thomas Robinson, principal and founder of Lever Architecture, at Union Way, the hipster shopping arcade on West Burnside opposite Powells Books.

Green beginnings

The architecture, engineering and construction industries are generally slow to adopt new structural materials. It’s always a matter of who can afford to slog through the building code and testing regime. And that’s before they pay to train a workforce to build with the stuff.

But Oregon is putting out green shoots of progress in the use of cross laminated timber. This is two-by-sixes of cheap wood — Douglas Fir here, pine in the southeast — that is laid out, shoulder-to-shoulder. It is well planed for nice sharp corners. A layer of glue is smeared on the surface, then another row of planks is laid down at 90 degrees. More glue and planks are laid, parallel to the first, and so on. Then the whole block is subjected to a giant pneumatic press, pushing on it from the top and sides. The resulting woven timber product is extremely strong, like a Mega Bloks version of glu-lam timbers (the sort that hold up the Timbers roof at Providence Park). It works as beams, walls and floors.

Framework aims to be a symbol of many different things.

First, it hopefully represents economic development for Oregon. DR Johnson Lumber in Riddle, Ore., received certification just three months ago to begin making CLT alongside its other wood products. It makes sense to make CLT in the same plant as glu-lam timber. Salem politicians are hoping it will lead to a revival in the lumber industry, whose 50-year decline has turned Oregon into a state of urban haves and rural have nots.

CLT construction started 20 years ago in Switzerland and was developed in Austria and Germany. It’s big in London, where it earns owners carbon credits. It is also good for building where time and space are limited — prefab construction means you can add one floor per day. According to naturallywood.com, the nine-story Murray Grove residential tower was erected in just nine weeks using CLT panels — about four months less than conventional on-site concrete construction. It’s growing in Vancouver, B.C., where they also make the timber. The University of British Columbia has an eight-story Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Project with CLT walls and roof construction off of a concrete foundation.

Lever is getting out ahead in the CLT game. The firm has also designed the four-story Albina Yard office and retail building in North Portland. In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made a grant of $3 million, which it shared between a New York project and the Pearl District tower.

Growing support

The real estate developer, Anyeley Hallova, a partner at Project^ explained that the project is about more than a building.

“It was partly judged on whether when it goes through permitting and structural feasibility, it could create a model for future CLT projects.”

They had to show they had support from Oregon and Portland, show the team had the technical expertise to work with mass timber (the architect, KPFF engineers and Walsh Construction) and that there was a big idea behind the project.

“The teams had to have an idea of the processes in which the project could catalyze Oregon rural economic development,” she adds. “The main goal of all that is to spur economic development in rural America.”

The building is supposed to reflect the values of the owner — two B Corps, Beneficial and Albina, which are focused on social justice and economic opportunity.

The spec offices will attract other B Corps. The 80 percent of median income affordable housing is a rare middle class type of housing in the Pearl, workforce housing.

“It was a value-driven project from the beginning,” says Hallova. “So we asked, ‘What’s cutting edge?’ And that’s where CLT came up. It’s really changing the paradigm.”

They also had to show there was a pipeline of projects in the Portland area, that this is more than a one off experiment and others are keen to build.

Robinson points out that other architects are very interested. Indeed at the AIA Awards last week there was buzz about CLT, people talked about it not just as the next big thing, but a very Oregonian next big thing.

“Walsh gets it. They are known for working with wood. They know when to look out for the bottom line and when to be flexible. For them and us, this is the future of where we want to go.”

Walsh and Lever worked on Art House together on the North Park Blocks (PNCA student housing) and also Treehouse, a quirky, octagonal apartment building on a steep site near OHSU which opened this summer.

Robinson and his firm Lever are working flat out to get through the permitting process, which will make it easier for others to build in CLT in the next year or two. The feeling in Salem is that if Oregon could become a leader in this type of construction, it could revive the state’s flagging image as a green innovator.

Architecture critic and director the John Yeon Center for Architectural Studies, Randy Gragg believes CLT is more than a fad.

“If CLT proves to have efficiencies in either direct costs or speed of construction over other construction techniques, it could be huge for the Oregon economy — if production can be ramped up fast enough. We’re good at giving tax breaks to large corporations. This will be a test: can we target other kinds of subsidies to jumpstart a local industry?”

He adds that prices usually dictates materials when it comes to high rises. Of steel or concrete frames, steel usually wins. However, “If CLT proves to be a third option — in price — sure, it could change the skyline. Otherwise, it will be a boutique choice for those who like the glass/wood aesthetic. Very Portland.”

Gragg says that on tight budgets, “Thomas Robinson and Lever have been doing some really inventive buildings, absorbing materials and details used elsewhere in the world to create buildings that are original to here.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Real estate developer Anyeley Hallova, a partner at Project^, and Thomas Robinson, principal and founder of Lever Architecture, in Levers office on Northwest 13th Ave.

The lobby will have a tall wood exhibit to attracted tourists, or at least, architecture tourists. The building has a split up the middle, which makes the wooden core visible.

“We wanted to reflect the cultural mission of the client, and have that reality evident at every level of the building. The idea of a strong core, of branches and an understory was there from the beginning,” says Robinson.

Is the big tree thing just a cute metaphor? Robinson says it’s more than that. The building will be lighter than usual and sit on a four-foot thick, 10,000 square-foot concrete slab full of steel rebar. It will survive an earthquake.

“This is not stick frame wood construction, these are 24-inch by 12-inch beams.” Such beams and panels are drilled in the factory with a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) router, with a tolerance of 1/16th of an inch — much finer than usual in tower construction.

Associate Professor in the Architecture School at Portland State University, Corey Griffin was amazed to watch how the roof of the new elephant house at the Oregon Zoo was installed in minutes.

Griffin has studied the embodied energy and carbon footprint of many building materials, and believes CLT can give concrete and steel a run for their money. He hates to compare directly the cost of steel to concrete to CLT. He says a huge part of the cost of concrete is the trucks and pumps driving and idling while they pour. Another huge cost is the key ingredient of concrete, Portland cement, which requires very hot kilns to make it from limestone.

“It makes up 90 percent of the carbon footprint of concrete. If they could find a replacement for Portland cement, that would be a game changer.”

Portland State University saw up close how difficult CLT paperwork can be. The new School of Business building was going to be CLT, but the infrastructure and workforce to build it wasn’t there and the university couldn’t wait. Behnisch, the German architects from Boston which done a large CLT conference hall in Geneva, Switzerland, in the end, went with steel and concrete.

He says studies have shown that people are more productive and less stressed in buildings with access to the natural world, whether it’s a rural landscape view from a window, fresh air, natural light or being surrounded by wood. This is called biophilia, a love of living things.

“It’s not that you want need to touch the wood, but if it’s visible it helps. It’s a the only structural material that is a natural material.”

He adds the architects who use a lot of wood have marketing on their mind.

“For me, the most interesting part is they want to be able to tell a story about the wood, and have it visible. It’s a lost cause if we cover it up with drywall.”

The story is inspired by the farm to table movement, the idea of restaurants using only fresh, local produce with a story attached.

“So we can tell larger story, using wood that is engineered product from our forests, about the whole supply chain, from forest to finished to building, literally supporting our communities, cities supporting rural economies. Oregon wants to stop the practice of sending logs to Asia, and wants to add the value to those logs here.”

That’s a more compelling story than biophilia, that warm feeling we get around exposed beams and lumberjacks.

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Correction: The Richard Woodcock Education Center at Western Oregon University in Monmouth was designed by Mahlum, not Lever, as previously stated.

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