All posts in Sustainability

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GND-LA

L.A. city and county developing roadmaps for carbon neutrality
Taking a cue from environmentally-conscious legislators in the nation’s capital, Los Angeles–area municipal entities are making plans to transform and repackage the region’s existing sustainability goals under the mantle of the Green New Deal with the aim of eliminating carbon emissions and boosting social equity. This week, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled a wide-ranging “Green New Deal” plan for the city that calls for eliminating carbon emissions in the city entirely by 2045. Like the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez– and Ed Markey–backed Green New Deal initiative, Garcetti’s vision for the future of L.A. aims to unify environmental and social policy to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Under the vision, Los Angeles would reduce building energy use by 44 percent by 2050, reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita by 45 percent by 2045, and ensure that 75 percent of the new housing units built in the city would be less than 1,500 feet from a transit stop, among other goals. These efforts would be guided by new job training initiatives that would help deliver economic promise to the city’s residents. Under the plan, the city hopes to shore up its chronic water issues, as well, and plans to source up to 70 percent of L.A.’s water locally while capturing 150,000 acre-feet per year and recycling 100 percent of the water used within city limits by 2035. Simultaneously, Los Angeles County, the most populous county in the country, is crafting a long-term regional sustainability plan with the help of BuroHappold, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and social justice nonprofit Liberty Hill Foundation. The initiative will deploy a “set of strategies and actions for creating a resilient, inclusive, equitable, and sustainable county,” according to a press release, and calls for eliminating on-road diesel particulate emissions by 100 percent by 2035, sourcing 80 percent of water locally by 2045, and achieving carbon neutrality countywide by 2050. The team behind the plan recently unveiled a draft proposal, available at OurCountyLA.org, that is being workshopped with the help of community members and over 630 stakeholders from 292 regional organizations. If the plans are successful, they would signal a major shift in how the county’s 10 million inhabitants live their lives and could reshape the county’s built environment and transportation infrastructure. Mayor Garcetti’s plan, however, has come under fire for not going far enough from environmental groups like the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement, the youth-driven organization that helped develop Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal legislation. Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies, told Curbed that because the mayor’s plan only posits a reduction in VMT and relies heavily on the use of electric vehicles, “nothing that’s listed here will produce more than a 5 percent reduction,” adding, “It probably won’t bring them anything.”
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Sunny Days

EPFL puts new high-efficiency rooftop solar panels to the test
While solar panels have become increasingly common, the ones usually found on rooftops and the like can convert at most between 17 and 19 percent of received solar energy to usable electricity. This average yield has plateaued, increasingly only about 3.5 percent since the 2000s. More efficient panels are available, like those used on satellites, but they remain cost prohibitive. Insolight, a Swiss startup from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), claims to have developed a scalable alternative, however. The company's new technology uses the same high-efficiency cells found in orbiting satellites but assembled in such a way that minimizes cost differences. Insolight's Mathieu Ackermann, Laurent Coulot, and Florian Gerlich have constructed arrays of very small versions of these high-efficiency cells, mounted with an optical magnifier that concentrates sunlight around 100 times, resulting in cells that take up less than .5 percent of the panel’s surface area but harvest a much larger percentage of the light hitting the panel. Most concentrator-operated solar systems require constant maneuvering to be tilted towards the sun. In order to maximize efficiency without requiring new mounting technology or complicated tilting mechanics, each of the cells is detailed so that it can make tiny, millimeter-level movements to position itself to track the sun without all the cost, space, and reliability issues found in many already available concentrator systems. Insolight's “microtracking” can reportedly capture 100 percent of the light that hits it, regardless of its angle of incidence. The ultra-thin panels can be mounted similarly to any traditional photovoltaic cell, even in a hybrid array layered with standard panels, which is especially useful for cloudy days. The panels spent a year on the roofs of an EPFL pilot site and worked “without a hitch,” according to the trio. In addition to the obvious environmental benefits, Insolight projects that the panels could cut electricity bills by as much as 30 percent, as well as provide a greater return on investment than other commercially-available solar options. The company hopes to bring its first products to the market in 2022. For more on the latest in AEC technology and for information about the upcoming TECH+ conference, visit techplusexpo.com/nyc/.
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Spring Awakening

A twisting treehouse by modus studio blooms above the forest floor
Following a soft opening last June, Modus Studio’s hovering Tree House has been captured amid its fully-installed landscape in the firm’s native Arkansas. Tree House sits above the Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden owned by the University of Arkansas—frequent Modus collaborators. Rather than sitting at the base of the oak and pine trees found in the Evans Children’s Adventure Garden, Tree House has been elevated to the top of the forest, allowing for expansive views of the canopy. The L-shaped treehouse snakes through the trees, ballooning from a child-sized opening at one end to a two-story observation area, capped with a steel screen, fabricated in-house by Modus, that mimics leaflike capillaries. Other than its biomorphic shape, the treehouse is strongly defined by its central steel spine and 113 timber ribs, which were sourced from local Southern Yellow Pine. The fins simultaneously allow the elements to pass through the treehouse while potentially obscuring the forest and adding a sense of mystery for the occupants. The first of three planned treehouses, the structure was envisioned as a refuge for children to explore the outdoors while learning about nature. Everything from the infrastructure, to the programming, to the intricate finishes, reference dendrology, the study of trees. Visitors can access the treehouse either from an elevated trail or directly from a staircase at the forest’s floor. The Fayetteville-based modus, an Emerging Voices 2018 winner, cited its deep ties to Arkansas’s rural landscape in designing Tree House and were directly involved in every step of the project's process.
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Your Glass is Grass

De Blasio cracks down on glass towers as part of Green New Deal
Days after the New York City Council passed the sweeping Climate Mobilization Act, which will impose emission restrictions on buildings over 25,000 square feet, New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed a sweeping “Green New Deal” for the city. The OneNYC 2050 initiative, which would see the city go fully carbon neutral by 2050, tackles climate change through new building codes, glass tower crackdowns, renewable energy requirements, citywide composting, investing in resiliency planning, and by supporting the new congestion pricing scheme. The $14 billion package would, combined with actions taken by the prior administration, reduce carbon emissions from a 2005 baseline level by 40 percent by 2030. A number of steps will help the city government decrease emissions 23 percent from a 2005 baseline. The city’s 50,000 buildings over 25,000 square feet will be retrofitted with more efficient technology, and city-owned buildings will be switched over to all-renewable energy sources in the next five years (the city is currently in talks to build out the infrastructure that would allow them to bring in Canadian hydropower). De Blasio also touted the potential restrictions on new towers with inefficient glass curtain walls. “Now, we’re going to take it another step because part of the problem here is that buildings got built that never should have been built to begin with if we were thinking about the needs of our Earth,” said the Mayor when announcing OneNYC 2050 on Earth Day yesterday. “Some of them you can see right behind us in the background. And so, we are going to introduce legislation to ban the glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming. They have no place in our city or on our Earth anymore. “If a company wants to build a big skyscraper, they can use a lot of glass if they do all the other things needed to reduce the emissions. But putting up monuments to themselves that harmed our Earth and threatened our future, that will no longer be allowed in New York City.” The mayor went on to ding Hudson Yards in particular, claiming that many of the towers were inefficiently heated or cooled due to their glass envelopes. De Blasio’s aides were quick to point out that the administration wasn’t banning glass as a facade material outright, but that they would be imposing much rigid standards on performance or allowing developers to purchase carbon offsets instead. Mark Chambers, the city's sustainability director, touted SHoP’s American Copper Building for its smart use of high-performance glass. "The reason I’m saying ban is to emphasize the point that if a company came in, a landlord came in with the exact same kind of design that they’ve come in with in too many cases in the last—just few years, it will be rejected and they would not be allowed to build, period. That’s why I say it’s a ban. You literally will not be physically allowed to build the kinds of buildings that have gone up even recently in this town. Now, you know, there’s good examples and Mark pointed out the Copper Building, the buildings that Cornell-Technion are built to much higher standards which is a good example that you can have, you know, a modern skyscraper that works. But honestly even some of the recent ones built in this city don’t meet appropriate standards and those will no longer be allowed." That drew immediate pushback from Hudson Yards’ developer Related Companies, which told Crain's that the neighborhood was designed to meet LEED standards and that its towers were among the city’s most efficient class A office buildings. Other changes the mayor proposed included amending the city’s electrical code, enacting a citywide organics recycling program (composting), and realigning the city’s development goals with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. Although the New York City Green New Deal was announced with much fanfare on de Blasio’s part, actual details of how these changes would be implemented were sparse. The plan will also have to pass a City Council vote as legislation and may change in the process.
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Fiber Intake

MIT lab creates sculptural pavilion made with dissolvable panels
Less than 10 percent of the billions of tons of plastic ever produced has been recycled, with much of it winding up in the Earth's oceans where the plastic disrupts ecosystems and releases toxic chemicals. In response, researchers led by Neri Oxman of MIT’s Mediated Matter Group, which focuses on “nature-inspired design and design-inspired nature,” have devised a new materials that they say, in somewhat biblical terms, go “from water to water.” The substances include a structure made of biocomposite skins derived from cellulose, chitosan, and pectin, some of the most abundant biopolymers on earth, in everything from tree branches to insect exoskeletons to common fruits to human bones. The researchers have put these new composites to the test in a 16-foot-tall pavilion named Aguahoja I (literally, water-sheet in Spanish), the culmination of six years of intense research into material science and robotic fabrication. Panels, comprising a top layer of chitosan and cellulose with a bottom layer of apple pectin and chitosan, were 3D-printed in various compositions to affect their rigidity and strength, color and color-changing abilities, transparency, and responses to heat and humidity, as well as their load-bearing abilities. This means, according to the lab, that the materials are functionally "programmable." Because of this variability, a variety of facade or load-bearing structural components can be generated from the same process, and the size is limited only by that of the printer. This “water-based digital fabrication” is intended to create a situation in which form, function, and fabrication are more closely linked, working in a way that mimics how the natural world designs itself; the result is “a continuous construction modeled after human skin—with regions that serve as structure, window, and environmental filter,” said the lab. In a display at the MIT Media Lab, the pavilion was shown along with a library of materials with various colors, shades, and structural properties, and an array of custom hardware, software, and wetware. The pavilion has been acquired by SFMOMA for its permanent collection, and a second version, Aguahoja II, will appear in the Cooper Hewitt’s design triennial, themed “Nature,” which opens next month. When structures made of these materials have run their course, the materials can be dissolved in water, returning natural materials to the environment with relatively little harm or disruption, much like any organic object in a naturally occurring ecosystem that decays and returns to be reused by the life that relies on it. For more on the latest in AEC technology and for information about the upcoming TECH+ conference, visit techplusexpo.com/nyc/.
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Waterfront Forest

3XN reveals North America's tallest timber office tower for Toronto
Danish studio 3XN has revealed renderings of its latest addition to the Toronto waterfront, a 10-story timber office tower. Once complete, T3 Bayside will be not only the third 3XN tower to spring up in Bayside but also the tallest timber office building in all of North America. The 138-foot-tall office building is being developed by the international firm Hines and will provide office space for the 2,000-acre Bayside redevelopment (not to be confused with Sidewalk Labs’ nearby “Quayside” project). T3 Bayside, and its adjoining plaza, will join 3XN’s two nearby residential towers, and according to the developer, the development is expected to cement Bayside’s status as a live-work neighborhood. Using cross-laminated timber (CLT) for the tower’s frame allowed 3XN to reduce both projected construction costs as well as the building’s embodied energy. The structural timber will be left exposed inside, creating a warm interior that, according to 3XN, will also regulate the indoor humidity as the wood absorbs and releases moisture. 3XN has wrapped the building in vertically-oriented exterior louvers, that are partially interrupted to create a stair-like pattern of terraces across the facade—a design flourish that’s becoming increasingly common among office buildings. T3 Bayside is expected to welcome up to 3,000 tenants across a variety of coworking and community spaces, and flexibility was a major design driver. Double-height adjustable spaces that directly connect to the lobby, event and community spaces, more traditional offices, and communal “social” zones will all be mixed. From the renderings, it appears that T3 Bayside will also integrate parking on its second floor. A new plaza at the tower’s base will connect cafes, lobbies, exhibition and gallery spaces, and retail at T3 Bayside’s base with the larger Bayside development. 3XN hopes that by activating the ground-level, the design can lead visitors to the waterfront promenade along Lake Ontario. No estimated completion date or budget for the project have been released as of yet.
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Salvage Swings

Somewhere Studio uses reclaimed CLT for 2019 City of Dreams pavilion
The average swingset, built in backyards and playgrounds across the country, features loads of metal and plastic. Somewhere Studio, a young firm based in Arkansas, is unintentionally turning that unsustainable construction on its head with Salvage Swings, a series of swing modules made from reclaimed timber. Coming to Roosevelt Island this summer, the project is the official 2019 City of Dreams Pavilion winner, selected through a competition hosted annually by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Structural Engineers Association of New York, and FIGMENT, a local arts organization. Salvage Swings was born out of the University of Arkansas’s Fay Jones School of Architecture and its Fabrication Laboratories. Jessica Colangelo and Charles Sharpless, founders of Somewhere Studio, teach at the Fayetteville campus and conceived of the project last year as a way to reuse the wood leftover from the construction of the school’s new student housing project, Stadium Drive Residence Halls. The 200,000-square-foot mass timber building, designed by local firm Modus Studio, as well as Mackey Mitchell Architects, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, and OLIN, using cross-laminated timber and glulam-panels from Binderholz, an Austrian manufacturer that ships its products on sacrificial palettes also made of CLT. Somewhere Studio is taking these palettes and using them for the pop-pup playspace in New York. According to Sharpless, the palettes are perfect products to experiment with because they aren’t graded for commercial use. “Even though it’s a raw material that’s basically used for storage, it looks and behaves like processed cross-laminated timber,” he said. “When we began the project, it occurred to us that we had this big pile of wood staring at us that would otherwise be thrown away, so we decided we wanted to show off its quality and strength.” Designed to stand as a temporary public piece of interactive art, Salvage Swings will feature 12 individual swing modules that can be set up together to form a triangular communal space. Each module will be constructed from the palettes, which will be cut, cleaned, and sealed at UArk, and then painted with different patterns and colors to add personality. Sharpless noted the idea to create a swingset wasn’t top of mind at the start of the design process, but the use of salvaged timber heavily drove the form of the installation.   “The shape of the boxes is intended to provide some structural rigidity,” Sharpless said. “CLT is light, flexible, and you can work with it quickly. We angled each box so that when you’re looking at one from a single direction, it starts to flatten out. Then from another direction, it starts to heighten your perspective and create a sense of layers.” These changing perspectives also bring a sense of playfulness to the pavilion—a core goal that Somewhere Studio tries to achieve in its work. Repetition is another design move the firm often features. In the triangular shape of Salvage Swings, the repeating boxes provide unique frames for visitors to view Roosevelt Island and the surrounding city. While Salvage Swings is in-part an experiment in the effectiveness of CLT as an exterior construction material, the project is also a way to encourage fun. “We like the idea of engaging people who might not be attracted to an architectural or art installation or know immediately what ours is made of,” said Sharpless. “So it’s exciting to showcase this really beautiful product and educate the public about its strength. At the end of the day, though, we want people to have fun and, in particular, for children to gain a sense of play from the pavilion. They’re a great audience and I don’t think we’re designing enough for them.” Salvage Swings is currently accepting donations to build the project through a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on March 23. As of today, the project is fully funded. Now that the total money has been raised, Colangelo and Sharpless will construct the pavilion for the 2019 summer season on Roosevelt Island, collaborating with Taylor and Miller Architecture and Design on lighting for the modules, as well as Guy Nordenson and Associates on their structural engineering. Come fall, Salvage Swings will likely be broken down into parts, according to Sharpless, where a section will stay in New York and another will be set up in Arkansas.
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Green ‘Em if you got ‘em

California’s Building Decarbonization Coalition plans to green building operations
While politicians in Washington, D.C., spar over the estimated costs of implementing a Green New Deal, California’s Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) is making a plan and taking action. The Sacramento-based group recently released a report, A Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings, which sets out a series of guiding principles and quantitative targets that could help the state meet its aggressive emissions reductions standards. As BDC’s name suggests, the group has targeted buildings, which in California produce roughly 26 percent of total carbon emissions, as a key area for improvement as the state works to eliminate carbon emissions entirely by 2045. California’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in the early 2010s at nearly 500 million tons of pollution per year and have dropped slightly every year since. California even met its 2020 emissions goals several years early, mainly as a result of the ongoing build-out of previously-planned renewable energy infrastructure and due to the realization of energy conservation goals, among other efforts. But now, with the low-hanging fruit picked, reality is starting to set in: The road to zero emissions is going to be long and hard-fought, and California needs a concrete, coordinated plan to achieve its ambitious and necessary climate goals. But don’t let those early gains fool you. Despite the progress, Panama Bartholomy, BDC director said via press release, “building emissions spiked 10 percent nationally in 2018, driving one of the largest national emissions increases in decades.”  Bartholomy added, “Yet even here in California, the nation’s climate leader, there is no plan in place to address these emissions.” The BDC hopes to change that. While state legislators work steadily to make increasing density—which will reduce transportation-related emissions—a higher priority in California’s cities, BDC aims to fine-tune the ongoing use, operation, and maintenance of the new and existing buildings that fill those cities. It is expected that California’s building stock will increase by 30 percent between now and 2045, a key opportunity to lock-in carbon emissions savings for the long term if all goes according to plan. A key approach for achieving this aim in the building sector, according to the group, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the reliance on natural gas-powered appliances like stoves, furnaces, water heaters, and other elements in new construction and in existing buildings as they are upgraded over time. This way, as the state’s energy grid draws more of its juice from renewable sources, emissions will fall two-fold due to a decrease in the use of dirty fuels in appliances as well further savings generated through the production of the new green energy sources that power them. As with many of the efforts to transition toward a zero-emission society, however, the challenges are cultural as well as technological. Conventional construction methods and business operations favor fossil fuel-powered appliances, for example, while consumers harbor their own preferences for gas stoves and other household items. To shift tastes and practices, BDC advocates for incentives over punitive measures. The group’s three-pronged effort seeks to first spur new demand in renewable powered appliances via new policies, public information campaigns, and financial incentives that support wider adoption of sustainable approaches. Once that demand is built up, the group advocates for lowering costs of individual products, like high-efficiency heat pumps, for example, through additional financial incentives so that cleaner technologies and appliances can compete with conventional approaches across price points. After that, the group envisions targeted informational and incentive campaigns that ensure wide adoption of these approaches by low-income and other hard-to-reach groups. With debate over national decarbonization strategies taking shape, keep an eye on California’s efforts to rework its building sector. Crucial lessons are sure to emerge as the plan comes to life.
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Wind Chill

Ancient technology gets an update in sustainable cooling solution
“The way we cool our buildings right now is totally wrong,” said Indian architect Monish Siripurapu in a video produced the United Nations' Environment program. The words are bleak, but arguably true; the electricity and hydrofluorocarbons most modern cooling systems demand ironically warm the planet overall while they cool our conditioned spaces. On top of that, with global temperatures rising and worldwide populations growing, demands for cooling are only increasing. More eco-friendly options are urgently needed, and Siripurapu’s New Delhi–based firm Ant Studio has proposed an affordable, scalable, sustainable, and aesthetically appealing solution to the problem of air conditioning. Ant Studio’s mission is to combine “art, nature, and technology,” and its temperature-regulating solution is designed to be as much an art installation as a cooling system. The Beehive, as the system's first iteration is called, was built to ameliorate high-temperature conditions for laborers at the Noida, Uttar Pradesh–based manufacturer Deki Electronics, where generators and other equipment output their own heat, adding to high outdoor temperatures. The Beehive is part of a larger exploration by the firm that leverages terracotta tubes and water as part of a low-energy cooling system. The Beehive, so-named for its honeycomb-like structure, follows an Indian tradition of using earthenware to cool water. “Traditional architecture has so much wisdom,” said Siripurapu. The ancient process has been wholly modernized, with tools such as computational fluid dynamics modeling, as well as the addition of low-energy water pumps and, if needed, electric fans. But instead of using fans with the Beehive installation, Ant Studio’s cooling device was placed right in front of the exhaust vents of the diesel generator near where workers at the factory were active. This was able to drop the “scorching” air being expelled from the generator from 122 degrees Fahrenheit to 97 degrees Fahrenheit, while lowering the overall temperature in the area and reportedly consuming 40 percent less energy than other cooling systems, not to mention using no refrigerants. The cooling system consists of arrays of open terracotta cylindrical cones (designed in such a way to maximize surface area and fired at “mid-level” temperatures to maintain the clay’s ability to absorb moisture from the air) over which water is poured. The water, which adheres to the clay, naturally lowers in temperature due to evaporative cooling, which in turn cools the air passing through the tubes. The water can be recycled throughout the system, requiring only infrequent topping off, and biofilms of microalgae that grow on the clay surfaces can actually aid in air purification, according to the firm. Further, as explained in an informational video from the firm, “all materials are recyclable, reusable, or biodegradable.” While the Beehive at Dika Electronics took on a particular nature-inspired form, the system can be designed in all manner of shapes and sizes, and is inherently modular, making fabrication and assembling on-site simple. The overall hope with the project is to devise a system that is functional and visually appealing at the same time.” Ant Studio views the cooling systems as a work of sculpture as much as a functional tool. The terracotta cooling systems also could have broader social impact. Besides being a cheap, energy-efficient way to cool factories and public spaces, the craft required to manufacture the tubes creates local employment and skill-building opportunities. It also keeps alive traditional manufacturing techniques that provide a unique, hand-hewn character that industrial cooling systems certainly lack. The clay-based materials also mean a net reduction in embodied energy for these cooling systems. Ant Studio has also proposed a smaller system which they’re calling ETHER, a cooling device for personal use and small spaces that resembles something like a cross between a Dyson fan and an ancient artifact. Ant Studio’s cooling projects were one of the twelve winners of the United Nations’ Asia-Pacific Low Carbon Lifestyles Challenge and have been nominated for the Clean Energy Challenge from What Design Can Do, a “platform” and series of global conferences on design. Nominated teams are given the “opportunity to improve their project” with the final winners to be announced on March 6.
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That Big Forest in the Sky

North America's tallest timber tower wins city support in Milwaukee
The tall timber arms race is heating up. On January 22, the Milwaukee City Council's City Plan Commission unanimously recommended that a requested rezoning at 700 East Kilbourn Avenue move ahead, clearing the first hurdle for the Korb & Associates Architects–designed, 21-story mass timber tower. The mixed-use Ascent’s first five stories would rise on cast-in-place concrete, with up to 8,100 square feet of ground-floor retail and four stories of enclosed parking above that. The remaining 15 stories would contain 205 rental units and be built from mass timber fastened with steel connectors. Korb & Associates plan on leaving the wooden elements exposed as an interior finish wherever possible. The 238-foot-tall tower is being developed by New Land Enterprises, which has partnered with Korb & Associates on a number of projects across Milwaukee previously. According to Urban Milwaukee, the developer hopes to break ground on the Ascent this year, assuming the rest of the approvals process continues apace. The rezoning for the site still needs approval from the city’s Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. If Ascent’s design remains unchanged, it will slightly edge out Shigeru Ban’s 232-foot-tall hybrid timber Terrace House in Vancouver for the title of North America’s tallest timber building. According to partner and project architect Jason Korb, Ascent’s prefabricated timber components means that the top 16 floors can be installed in only four months. In a fire, the mass timber used for the structural elements will only char, not burn through, and Korb told Urban Milwaukee that, “The entire wood structure, and this would never happen, could burn down and the cores would be left standing.” Mass timber construction has been making slow progress in the United States compared to the rest of the world, but that may be about to change. The International Code Council, from which many state and local municipalities derive their building codes, recently embraced tall timber after two years of testing. With the new code adjustments in place, tall timber in the U.S. will only continue to rise.
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Tracking Paul Bunyon

Explore these maps of North America's blooming timber industry
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This article originally appeared as part of our January 2019 print issue in the timber feature. The timber industry has long thrived on its small-scale, local nature due to the sourcing of its materials as well as the limits on project size set by the building code. With this has come a good deal of fragmentation and disorganization, so we decided to map out the different schools, organizations, and manufacturers that are leading the way in the research and development of mass timber across the United States and Canada.
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(Mass)ive Growth

The U.S. mass timber industry is maturing while it branches out

This article originally appeared as part of our January 2019 print issue in the timber feature.

President Donald Trump’s tariffs, enacted in November 2017, have not yet made a significant impact on the U.S. mass timber industry. But if Trump chooses to take more aggressive action in the next two years of his administration, this could dramatically change. This urgency, coupled with the recent global obsession with building tall wood structures, newly motivates American wood manufacturers to become independent of foreign suppliers. This would entail American manufacturers catching up in machine technology and production capacity to bolster domestic trade and support innovative architecture sourced from home.

What’s clear is that U.S. demand for wood buildings is there. The country’s largest producer of cross-laminated timber (CLT), SmartLam, has experienced such rapid growth since opening six years ago that it is building a new headquarters in Columbia Falls, Montana, and planning a second facility in Maine to supply what the industry thinks will be an influx of midrise construction in New York and other cities along the Eastern seaboard.

“The expansion here is simply driven by need,” said SmartLam CEO Casey Malmquist. “There’s always been a grassroots support for CLT in the U.S. and a recently increased interest in research and testing. But now we’re no longer speculating about whether it will work—it’s going mainstream.”

While similar Pacific Northwest companies like DR Johnson and Katerra, as well as firms such as LEVER Architecture and Michael Green Architecture, have long led the field, production is growing in uncharted territories. South Carolina–based LignaTerra is adding another plant in Maine, while Canadian leaders like Nordic Structures in Montreal and Structure Fusion in Québec City, which already supplied CLT to projects across the country, are now focusing more attention on supplying the eastern U.S. market. Production is even swelling in the South with Texas CLT LLC, which is reopening a mill in southwest Arkansas.

But pioneering European companies, which have historically dominated the market and supplied American developers, are now putting down roots in the U.S. Austrian giant KLH is partnering with International Beams’ new factory in Dothan, Alabama, by supplying it with glulam blanks. Having opened this past September, it is the first plant east of the Rocky Mountains to produce CLT in the country and will primarily utilize the unique Southern Yellow Pine native to the region.

These investments show that the race to build such production facilities is vital to the U.S. market becoming competitive with other countries. But many experts say we need to increase cultural acceptance of mass timber as well as get investors on board before the industry starts churning up a sizable profit.

“The real strategy is that the big manufacturers in Europe are focused on making franchises here,” said Alan Organschi, principal of Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut. “They can produce higher quality products cheaper, even with overseas shipping, than manufacturers can in the U.S. and Canada.”

Organschi’s firm has been at the forefront of timber innovation for 20 years. He is confident the market is growing and will prove that by designing 6- to 14-story buildings, the sweet spot for mass timber construction. Dominique Briand, general manager of Canadian structural engineering firm Structure Fusion, is also optimistic about North America’s future, but feels certain that product-specific issues still need to be addressed before wood can match the quality of other structural materials like steel and concrete.

“The problem is the tools are not there,” Briand said. “There’s not enough manpower or knowledge to make or sell mass timber in the United States. Plus it’s a disorganized market, which creates a big gap between the product and the project.”

Briand believes that as long as timber is trendy, it will take young U.S.-based companies about five to ten more years to be competitive with Europe. In the meantime, architects, engineers, and educators are working to imagine groundbreaking designs at modest scales to ramp up domestic interest and encourage policy changes.

Many U.S. states are using financial incentives to entice manufacturers to locate to their respective regions. In Maine, both the state and federal governments have provided funding for the University of Maine’s extensive research to advance timber assemblies. Russell Edgar of the university’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center says the ultimate goal of this work is to organize the state’s supply chain in order to make Maine viable for these companies.

“People are talking a lot about South Carolina and Georgia since they grow trees like corn at such rapid rates,” he said. “But in Maine, we have proximity to these huge markets in New York and Boston, so we’re busy trying to find ways to get these companies here now.”

Sourcing timber products within 250 miles of a project is a huge advantage to practicing sustainability and boosting regional economies—not to mention a reason for rarely crossing borders for building materials. But a little competition is healthy, especially for lumber producers who want to bid in a fair marketplace.

“The more people there are, the better it will be,” said Briand. “I only worry that because we’re such a fast-evolving industry, a lot of companies will build huge facilities and focus solely on making and selling products. It’s not just about the products; it’s about creating strong business plans so the investment pays off.”