In the Pacific Northwest, a mass timber movement grows
A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with mass timber pioneer Susan Jones
In 2011, Seattle-based architect Susan Jones decided to fulfill a longtime dream. She, with the help of her design firm atelierjones, was going to design her own home — but not just any home. “I really wanted to do something experimental,” something sustainable, Jones explained, that could “inspire, potentially, new sustainable lower carbon technologies that will, who knows, maybe even change construction in the US.”
With that “modest goal” in mind, Jones got to work researching, and she soon came across a low-carbon, prefabricated material that would change her practice: mass timber. Since building her home in 2015, one of the first mass timber homes in the country, Jones has gone on to write a book about the material as well as design and build many internationally-recognized mass timber structures. In this Sidewalk Talk Q&A (adapted from our conversation for our City of the Future episode on Factory-based Construction), we speak with Jones to learn more about the benefits of this new kind of timber, the regulatory changes leading to its widespread adoption, and its implications for the larger construction and architecture industry.
Could you tell the story of how your home came to be?
The big decision was mass timber. I just knew that mass timber might have a capacity to really introduce some lower carbon construction in the future. And it took a long time to research: who makes this stuff? How do we get it? It wasn’t available anywhere in the US, only up in Canada. So there were a lot of calls. I kept calling these companies and they would vanish. And finally I reached StructurLam and they were in Penticton, BC. They’re still there I’m really happy to report.
And they say, “Okay, we’ll start to shop drawings as soon as you get the building permit and send us a big down payment for 50% of the contract.” And, I’m thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m just the architect and the owner. I still need to work with a contractor!” They say, “Well, that’s fine, but really you’re the designer.”
It dawned on me, like, “Oh, duh, this is a prefabricated process.” And I kind of fell in love with the process at that point, because I felt, I’ll be honest, I felt really powerful as an architect. It was exciting to me, because how many times have we been in design meetings as architects, again and again, and the contractor will say, “You want to design that? Oh, that’s just way too expensive. No, we can’t do that. Nope, we can’t do this.” And I respect that. It’s a collaborative process and everybody’s risking a lot, and the owner’s risking a lot, and the contractor’s risking a lot, and they’re guaranteeing pricing, et cetera.
But this is something that was really exciting because as the owner, I could say, “These are the panels I need.” I could get them designed. I could have them designed the way I wanted to. And then actually, nobody could change it in the field because it was already built. And so that kind of changed the balance of the designer being in charge of the project rather than the other way around — as long as the budget fit. And I was thrilled to be able to tie those prices down and tie the design down, and then, yes, have to live with my own mistakes too.
It was a really exciting and explosive time intellectually. All my curiosity, was just invigorated from the ground up, and I was really excited to be able to share that with people as often as I could after this process. That’s why I ended up writing a book, et cetera, just to get that information out and to share it with folks.
It’s really interesting to hear you say: “It made me feel more powerful as a designer to have more influence on the final product.”
I totally stand by that. These panels are kind of boring, and I’ll even say the word ugly. They’re awkward. Let’s just say that. And it’s your job to sculpt space and to make intersections, and repetitions, and buildings out of these that really reinvent the way we work with materiality.
So I feel like there’s a tremendous amount of freedom. I mean, when you’re working with a contractor money is always the limitation for everybody, but there is tremendous sharing of power in that design process. And we want to work as collaboratively as possible, and we believe we’re really great collaborators. But it’s also exciting to be able to know those panels, to know those blanks, and to know how those walls come together and how you can create intersections of space. And this house is a perfect example.
So, because of our site parameters, we have this three dimensional triangular structure of sorts. Each of the edges of the panels had to be cut at particular angles. But if you’re going to ask a carpenter to cut something at a 67.5 degree angle for the length of, let’s say, 12 feet in a perfectly straight line, he’s going to look at you and say, “Dude, go somewhere else.” It’s just not going to work. And on the other hand, if you just tell the machine, instead of cutting this 90 degrees, would you cut 67.5? And they shift the blade on it by computer and it just cuts it in about 10 minutes. I love that.
So then the panels arrive. They come down on these trucks and after they drive five and a half hours over the mountains they arrive one morning at 7:00 AM. And then there’s a crane on site and they put them on the site and then the truck drives off and we’re like, “Where’s StructurLam? Are they going to help us? Do we know what to do?” But they said, “No, you guys can do this. You guys do not need our help.” And sure enough, every single panel was numbered. They were all labeled as all wall panels or ceiling panels or floor panels. And it was amazing. And so by the end of day one, we had three panels up, four panels up, we had a ceiling on one of them and you could see the space come together so fast. And once the panels are up, then of course it’s a matter of more conventional construction, put the insulation on, put the waterproofing on, put the interior finishes on, et cetera.
It was really one of the most exciting experiences. I mean, I love when our buildings that we design are under construction and you start seeing and feeling this building that you’ve been designing in your brain for so long and all of a sudden it’s there in reality in three dimensions and it’s standing and other people can see that space too. But this was even more amazing because that time was compressed.
We were able to start construction in the fall of 2014, build it pretty quickly in 10 months. We were in the house in July of 2015. And I’m happy to report that actually my family really likes the house. We’re still here.
In the five years or so that have passed since this experience, has there been progress on reducing the costs of creating mass timber prefab buildings?
Cost is really an issue. The danger is that you compare mass timber panels on a square foot basis to, oh, a wall of concrete or steel or even just a light wood frame or light metal frame wall. Those square foot costs are not going to come out in mass timber’s favor. What’s going to happen though, is you’ll see how fast they go up. And there’s a lot more awareness of how to maximize the efficiency, and therefore the cost, of how to put these panels together.
First, the obvious one, that’s been talked a lot about with mass timber, is the schedule. When all these panels arrive on the site, you can put them up really quickly. If they’re repetitive panels, they might go up in four days for a small three story-building. Our house took about two weeks because of some of the complexity of the panels and weather, frankly, because I had the great sense to start this process of putting the panels up in the middle of winter, which was really not a good idea in the blustery Pacific Northwest. But you learn from your mistakes in those areas.
We can get onto the site faster. We don’t have to wait. And that’s a really exciting thing. And that’s going to lower costs.
That is exciting. That’s really compelling.
Exactly. And it’s even more powerful when you say, “Okay, great. So I can shave two months off this schedule. Wow. Okay. Well, that’s cool.” And it’s going to save the time of the labor crews on site and all those savings that go along with that extra two months.
But now take it back even one step further and bring it into the developers proforma. What happens when she can get tenants in there? What happens when she can start getting rent payments faster and add that to her equity payoffs or her equity bank loans, et cetera. That’s where you get the real value over time, and that really starts to add up. So if you have a developer that’s somewhat enlightened, who gets that and is willing to bet on that schedule savings and have the confidence in her contractor and her design team, well, that is where you really make out well. And it’s actually potentially a better solution cost-wise than anything else.
If you had to do your house today, would it be a whole different, maybe even easier, process?
It would be a lot easier because I know how to do it and I know the fabricators. We were doing one of the first CLT houses in the country, the first house to be permitted in the city of Seattle.
So in a way it would be so much easier because that fear factor, that risk of jumping in and being the early adopter is pretty much gone. And I’ve now taken three contractors through this process. And it’s always worked out.
One critical thing. The quality of the team. I handpicked my team. I handpicked my developer, the owner, the contractor, and the structural engineer. And really getting that right team is what’s going to make this work because if you don’t do it, there’s going to be problems. There’s going to be things that people overlook. There’s not going to be the will to overcome those hurdles. We’re all still early adopters in this, and we’re really thrilled to be at the cutting edge of this.
I do think we are at this real interesting tipping point. WoodWorks — which is an amazing industry support group that has been so helpful in trying to get the information out to architects, engineers, and contractors out into the world — put together a list of mass timber buildings. And it used to be, oh, here’s 10, 30, 90. And now it is almost 1,000 that have been built. And these are tall timber buildings. This is either in design or in construction.
And I don’t know these architects. It used to be I knew every single architect who was in this space and called them up and commiserated. And there was this really strong community. And there still is, but it’s definitely broadened. And that’s exciting.
Is there a particular reason you think we’ve reached that tipping point? One of the main things to change was the International Code Council process to rewrite the codes for tall wood buildings, which was absolutely revolutionary for this work. And I had the privilege — or the bane or the responsibility or whatever it was — but I was asked to sit on [the ICC Tall Wood Building Code] committee for almost three years pro bono work.
Half of the committee, including the Chair of the committee, was made up of really strong fire professionals that were really scared, as they would say, of “sending their boys up that staircase made out of wood into a burning wood building that’s 12 stories high.” Those guys brought us to tears several times. That process, all the fire testing that we went through as a committee, writing those fire tests, writing those protocols, hashing out what became 250 pages of mass timber code alone that were added to in the 2021 code cycle, standing up in front of the committee action hearings and testifying — it was a very, very moving and profound experience that I didn’t really expect. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done as a professional.
And when those codes came out and you saw the green lights being pushed on every corner of this country of projects of developers that have been waiting for this and all of a sudden projects are springing up … It was a green light for the industry to say go, and to understand that lobbying from the concrete industry wasn’t going to stop them, and steel wasn’t going to stop them. It signaled that the material was powerful enough to stand up to even four hours of the hottest fires we could even imagine to burn in those spaces. It was pretty moving.
It has been very interesting to see the power of the impact that an architect can have on large-scale, national policy. And on a personal level, I mean, both of our kids are really interested in policy now. They got to see firsthand the impact of a small gesture done by really one family, a huge financial risk. And they got to see that one small fairly privileged example turn into this large, broad movement that ended up changing codes to build high rises in cities that we’ll never maybe even see.
People have been talking about factory-based construction for a long time. Do you think mass timber could be a reason why factory-based construction finally takes off?
I’ll tell you the main motivator for me to jump in here and spend all of this research time in our firm, design time, all that code time, is because of the carbon, the lower carbon that it embodies. I love the design and I do love the prefabricated qualities and I love the idea of
being a pioneer on the cutting edge, but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t replacing a material that is so dirty and is so carbon intensive and is so tied to our early 20th century mindsets of how we build in this country. That’s what’s motivating me is to look at my children’s eyes, my grandchildren’s eyes some 60 years later — or maybe not in my case, but a few years later — and say, “Dude, I tried my heart to change our construction industry and I spent a hell of a lot of time doing that.”
That’s a really important sentiment for me to be able to stand behind, and I’m not alone in that. A lot of our profession is really pushing this, and as architects across this country, we’re looking for lower carbon alternatives to the way we’ve been able to build to date. We’re looking to quantify them. We’re looking to understand them, to verify them. We’re trying to make more sustainable forests. We’re trying to push our forestry experts and companies to be more sustainable. Digging deep into the supply chain.
And so when you combine all of that passionate energy together, you’re going to get a lot of change. Prefabrication is one piece of it. And it’s a cool piece, as I’ve said. I really liked it. I really want to do more of it. And I’ve learned a ton about how to do it, but it alone is not what’s driving me every day to spend this kind of time and energy and passion on it.
So when you think about where cities are going, what do you imagine?
Well, it’s a really important question, especially after all the equity issues that we were reminded of with Black Lives Matter this summer. Cities as a place of equity is a really important theme for all of us.
There are many layers to this that I think are really important. For instance, I am really indebted to Grace Farms Foundation for just one recent example. They, with folks like Phil Bernstein from Yale, have been challenging architects to think about: where do our materials really come from?
One of the key findings they’re making architects aware about is slave labor. And I mean those words literally. The slave labor that it takes in some of countries to create and craft some of the aluminum pieces, some of the roofing pieces, the zinc pieces that go into our roofs and structural elements that come from all around the world, the way gypsum is mined in certain countries, as just a few examples.
These are elements that we have not really discussed as a profession, or even really thought about as much, in the way that sustainability might have been new to some of our practices some 30 years ago. This is one of so many ways to help bring equity into our cities. Our work with this material of mass timber, and a lot of the prefabrication work contributes, because it’s so quantifiable and definable from the beginning in the design process.
So if I had to look forward to a city of the future, it would be a city that you could grow out of seeds in the palm of your hand and really quantify where those trees are being grown and know what materials are going into all of our buildings. And it would be one that would provide an equitable and gracious setting for all of us to live in.