Mass timber at OSU – slowed but undaunted

The newly completed lobby of First Tech Federal Credit Union's Pacific Northwest corporate office in Hillsboro. The 156,000-square-foot cross-laminated timber (CLT) building is among a growing number of commercial structures being built with CLT in Oregon. 

Oregon State University’s foray into mass timber hit a speed bump this spring, but construction of a signature building using innovative wood products technology is back on track and scheduled for completion in the fall of 2019.

On March 14, a cross-laminated timber (CLT) panel installed at Peavy Hall, the future home of the OSU College of Forestry in Corvallis, delaminated; two of the seven layers of lumber that made up the panel fell to the ground. No one was hurt, and all parties involved in the incident did the right thing.

OSU stopped construction on the two-building project, officially called the Oregon Forest Science Complex, and hired an engineering firm to analyze the structure for any other potential failures.

The manufacturer, Riddle, Ore.-based D.R. Johnson, investigated its role. Turns out there was an unauthorized change to the production protocols for a short period of time at the facility where lumber is glued together in alternating directions to create the CLT panels. This resulted in the production of some panels with weak adhesive bonds. Engineers zeroed in on the problem and corrected it. To be safe, the project’s general contractor then identified all panels that might have been affected, and is now completing the process of replacing them before moving ahead with construction. Problem solved.

Is this a major hurdle in the rapid adoption of CLT and other advanced wood products in commercial construction, or a minor hiccup? Actually, it’s whatever falls below a minor hiccup. When this event occurred, virtually everyone involved in the production and use of CLT and other advanced wood products heard about it. In the five months since, those same people have been moving forward, undeterred. Defects happen. They get corrected, and life moves on.

You might think the manufacturer’s customers would be taken aback by the incident. But, again, not the case. They’re still running two shifts at the plant and filling an order sheet that stretches through next spring, shipping panels to customers up and down the West Coast.

Some thought developers and builders would be hesitant, but they too are undaunted. Today there are at least five large new buildings being constructed in the Portland area using CLT as part of the structural system. At least a half-dozen more are in the planning stage and very likely to be built. Quite a few others are underway in California and Washington, and plenty more across the country.

In April, at the International Code Council’s Committee Action Hearings, 14 proposed amendments to the International Building Code – which collectively would allow for much larger and taller wood buildings – passed overwhelmingly. During the hearing those opposed to the amendments could have cited the Peavy Hall incident as a reason to vote the proposals down, but they didn’t. Likely, they too understood that manufacturing defects can occur with any product.

In recent months, Oregon-based Freres Lumber Co. opened a new manufacturing plant in Lyons that makes mass timber panels using wood veneer, the raw material that goes into plywood. The facility earned its PRG-320 certification last month, allowing it to begin marketing panels for structural use in similar applications as CLT.

At least five other U.S. mass timber plants, including two in eastern Washington (one in Colville and the other in the Spokane Valley) have broken ground.

The excitement around CLT and other advanced wood products is palpable, and it’s easy to see why. General contractor Swinerton recently handed over the keys to First Tech Federal Credit Union for their new Pacific Northwest corporate offices, a 156,000-square-foot CLT building in Hillsboro. The project was completed four months faster and 4 percent less expensively than it would have been had the team gone with a structural steel system, as was originally conceived. The architect on that project, Hacker’s Scott Barton-Smith, offered up a number of reasons architects and clients alike are jazzed about mass timber:

- By code, it must meet the same fire and seismic requirements as concrete and steel.

- It’s an elegant building solution that serves as the structure, fireproofing and finish, all in one.

- Wood has better aesthetics than fireproofed steel, including a warm, natural feel.

- Mass timber construction helps attract and retain the best staff by creating a distinctive work environment.

- Projects finish faster than conventional construction, and can be less expensive in comparison to constructing the same building with steel or concrete.

- Mass timber offers a structural solution that supports local industry and rural economies.

- Wood construction is sustainable. It’s a renewable resource that comes from sustainably managed forests here in Oregon. Wood stores carbon and requires less energy to produce than steel or concrete.

Many building owners, developers, architects and contractors are coming to these same conclusions. On August 1, the Oregon Building Codes Division made it much easier for all of them to use advanced wood products by publishing a Statewide Alternative Method (SAM) for building wood structures in Oregon up to 18 stories and 270 feet tall. That SAM, which took effect immediately, provides a prescriptive path for permitting that does not exist in any other state. That will make it easier for developers to achieve greater value in their projects using wood. It will go a long way toward accelerating the momentum of the growing mass timber movement.

There may be a few blips along the way, but it’s certain that Oregon will see a lot more wood buildings going up in the coming months and years. And for many good reasons.

Timm Locke

Director of Forest Products

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