Advocating for the widespread adoption of solid wood in construction

This women’s history monthin honor of women leaders in the multifamily industry, Multi-Accommodation News shares the voices of several women with remarkable achievements in their field.

Erica Spiritos’ professional successes exuberate a truly altruistic spirit – in the beginning, she devoted her time and energy to activities such as seeking opportunities to include innovation for remote communities, designing desalination on a household scale for families in the Gaza Strip and the management of secondary school groups. students on service-learning and nature trips in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colorado, and India.

Since 2015, she has focused on urban construction using sustainable structural materials. Now Spiritos is responsible for preconstruction at Swinerton-affiliate Timberlab, having risen through the ranks working on notable developments such as the Portland International Terminal Core and Roof Replacement project. The massive 400,000 square foot project pushes the boundaries of massive wood construction.

Currently, she is part of the team behind The Ascent, a 284-foot residential tower in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that holds the title of tallest wooden tower in North America. The building rises 25 stories, 19 of which feature exposed wooden columns, beams and ceilings.

What triggered this passion for wood and its derivatives?

Erica Spiritos, Preconstruction Manager, Timberlab. Image courtesy of Swinerton

Spirits: My passion for wood construction was born from a desire to build greener cities, so as to strengthen our connection with nature. Simply put, wood is the only rapidly renewable structural material in our repertoire.

One of the nice things that happens when designing a log building is that people want to know where the wood comes from. I don’t hear a lot of people wanting to figure out where the sand is coming from in their concrete mix, and yet it’s a crucial question. The more we understand where our materials come from and the associated impacts of consuming these resources on people and the planet, the better able we will be to make better decisions about our resource consumption.

Where does the wood used in the production of solid wood come from? Are there currently enough solid wood manufacturing and production facilities?

Spirits: The Pacific Northwest, Eastern Canada and the Southeastern United States are the main regions that supply wood for solid wood production. These regions all share an abundance of conifers – softwoods – used for the manufacture of CLT and glulam, and so manufacturing plants have located near these fiber baskets.

Solid wood manufacturers are not currently operating at full capacity and therefore, at present, the supply chain is wide enough to meet current demand. That said, we expect the number of log buildings constructed to double every two years, and so at some point we will need more glulam and CLT capacity. Hopefully these manufacturing facilities are spread across the country to enable regional sourcing of solid wood.

What are the properties of solid wood that make it such a popular building material? Does he also have weaknesses?

Spirits: Solid wood is multifunctional: it is a structural, fireproofing and finishing material in one beautiful element, installed by a single trade. Solid wood, like all structural materials, has strengths and weaknesses and should be used appropriately. We see developers wanting to use wood in speculative commercial buildings and achieve the same spans as a steel structure. A wooden beam does not want to span 45 feet. One could consider this a weakness, or one could consider that a wooden column could be a convenience for a space.

The Ascension. Image courtesy of Timberlab

In 2020, the International Code Council approved new codes that allowed mass timber buildings to rise up to 18 stories in several states. In the meantime, the law has changed again. Where are we now?

Spirits: Yes! Many jurisdictions across the country have adopted the use of wood in high-rise buildings up to 18 stories – permitted in three different construction types: Type IV-C up to eight stories or 85 feet, Type IV- B up to 12 stories or 180 feet, and Type IV-A up to 270 feet or 18 stories, with increasing fire protection requirements. This means that wood takes center stage alongside concrete and steel as a viable structural system for mid-rise and high-rise construction, providing opportunities for schedule savings and a reduced carbon footprint.

Let’s talk about the wildfires that in recent years have wreaked havoc in the western United States. A lot of land, and implicitly timber, has been lost due to these natural events. Can we do anything to prevent the recurrence of such intense wildfires?

Spirits: I am not an expert in forest management or firefighting! That said, isn’t it wonderful that the construction industry is discussing our impact on the landscape?

I understand that after the United States passed the Endangered Species Act, we severely limited forest management – harvesting – on public lands, and now many of those forests are overgrown, and this density increases the severity of forest fires. Coupled with the rising temperatures we are experiencing due to climate change, the results are tragic.

We may not be able to slow rising temperatures, but we can choose to restore unmanaged forests to a more ecologically resilient state, which often means selective thinning of trees that could be used in solid wood buildings. So, yes, this way choosing to build a log building could help mitigate the risk of wildfire. Interestingly, however, solid wood accounts for only 2% of all softwood lumber consumption in the United States today, so the impact may be small. But it’s growing.

The Ascension.  Image courtesy of Timberlab
The Ascension. Image courtesy of Timberlab

The steep rise in timber prices has to be one of the biggest obstacles to the increased use of mass timber – the price has more than tripled in the past two years. At the same time, the cost of all building materials has skyrocketed. What are your expectations regarding wood prices?

Spirits: The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on global supply chains across all sectors of the economy. Lumber is a commodity that fluctuates in price throughout the year depending on several factors, and yes, we have seen some unusual price spikes over the past two years. That said, the price of steel has risen much more than that of lumber. We expect prices to normalize later this year, and we haven’t seen people deterred from designing with solid wood for fear of raw material fluctuations.


READ ALSO: Seattle Project Showcases Mass Timber Advantages


What other challenges are there currently to wider adoption of solid wood? What are the temporary workarounds and what are the long-term solutions to these obstacles?

Spirits: The main obstacles to the adoption of mass timber are design and construction expertise, as well as the perception of risk. These barriers can be overcome through education and training, but it takes time.

Timberlab does a lot of industry education in an effort to accelerate the widespread adoption of log timber, and many of our projects are with homeowners and architects who are unfamiliar with log timber. There is a learning curve, with proper detailing of the building and with the process of delivering a pre-made kit of parts. I think the strategy has been for the mass timber fabricators, the fabricators, the builders to take care of the details and the coordination of these buildings because they have the expertise in-house.

The Ascension.  Image courtesy of Timberlab
The Ascension. Image courtesy of Timberlab

Tell us about the project you are most proud of.

Spirits: The Ascent project is an obvious precursor for Timberlab. Our team worked with the design team for two years to help optimize the building, before we procured equipment. I am proud of this project for what it says to the AEC industry about what is possible with wood and for the collaboration that brought it to life. We conducted three-hour fire tests for the glulam columns and delivered a two-hour beam-to-column connection that was constructible and economical, when the only other assembly tested on the market was unaffordable.

What other projects are you currently working on? What does your dream project look like?

Spirits: As the preconstruction manager at Timberlab, I work on almost all of our projects in one way or another. Right now, I’m really excited about the work we’re doing with two different healthcare providers to design mass timber medical office buildings. Solid wood is a challenge for MOBs due to the high live load and strict vibration requirements, but solid wood also makes a lot of sense aesthetically considering the physiological benefits of wood. How fantastic to promote health through the very bones of building!

Do you have a message for women in the construction industry?

Spirits: We need new voices and perspectives in the construction industry. I encourage women to bring their authentic selves to the table and express themselves. Just because things have been done a certain way for decades doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

About Matthew Berkey

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