SHoP Architects The proposed residential high-rise 475 W. 18th, in New York, is one of two projects to receive $1.5 million in research and development funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tall-wood construction in the U.S. could soon get the traction it needs to influence the building codes, domestic material supply (or lack thereof), and safety concerns that are holding it back. At a press conference today in New York, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), along with trade groups the Softwood Lumber Board and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council, announced the winners of the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition. The two winning teams will split $3 million in funding to support the research and development of their proposed projects, to be located in Portland, Ore., and New York. Required to rise at least 80 feet and use mass-timber and other engineered-wood materials, the buildings are the latest outputs of a recent push to open the U.S. design and construction market to wood as a structural material.  

"We’re excited about these two projects, we’re interested in the reaction, and the hope is that these two spur additional interest," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told ARCHITECT by phone earlier this week. "That the cities and locals begin to think about the need to modernize their construction codes to make sure that this is available."

LEVER Architecture A rendering of the proposed Framework mixed-use project in Portland, Ore.

The winning projects are Framework, a mixed-used development in Portland, Ore., and 475 W. 18th, a residential high-rise in New York. Teams for both designs have received the initial go-ahead from their respective local building authorities, and they'll use the funds from the competition to further research and development, not for construction costs.

Framework is the project of real estate developer Project with LEVER Architecture and investor Home Forward, all based in Portland, that is planned for the city's Pearl District and was already in development when the project team learned of the USDA's competition. The 12-story multi-use project will incorporate residential, office, and commercial spaces, as well as a community area that will feature an exhibit on tall-wood construction, and is located in a formerly industrial segment of the city that is serviced by a public streetcar. It will be constructed primarily of cross-laminated timber (CLT). The team is considering exposing the CLT in the ceiling as well as the glulam columns and beams—showing what's possible with wood construction in more ways than one.

LEVER Architecture Framework

“We see the project as a catalyst to align the regulatory framework with technology for mass-timber construction in the U.S.,” says LEVER Architecture founder and principal Thomas Robinson, AIA. “They are building tall timber in other parts of the world and we believe the time is right to do it here. A lot of the issues that we see are really about testing and the regulatory framework that needs to be put into place to allow that to happen.”

The second project proposal, 475 West 18th, is the work of New York-based SHoP Architects, Arup, Icor Consulting Engineers, environmental consultants Atelier Ten, and developer Spiritos Properties. To be located in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood across the street from the future main entrance to the city’s High Line, the proposed 10-story residential complex will be the first high-rise building in the city to incorporate a modern mass-wood system. It will also be the tallest building in New York to use structural timber, according to the project team. 

SHoP Architects A rendering of 475 W. 18th, in New York.

In an email to ARCHITECT, SHoP explained that the building’s timber structure will be made visible from the interior and the exterior. “Making these mass timber members visible throughout not only exploits the unique functional and tactile qualities of the material but allows for a clear, authentic expression of the logic of the structural frame,” they wrote. The team is also considering wood for the floors, ceilings, and interior finishes. The project seeks to consume 50 percent less energy than is required by current energy codes and to achieve LEED Platinum certification.

Advocates of tall-wood construction still have a handful of hurdles to clear—among them, growing the base of domestic producers of products like CLT, communicating the latest heavy-timber performance data to prospective specifiers, and designing wood systems that can handle seismic loads. Prototype and conceptual work like SOM's Timber Tower Research Project, Canadian architect Michael Green's case studies of tall-wood construction (and, more recently, his firm's Wood Innovation and Design Centre on the campus of the University of North British Columbia, in Canada) have helped to raise wood's profile as a structural contender. As has the completion of more than 15 tall wood buildings over the course of the last five years in Australia, Canada, and Europe, Vilsack says. "We encourage this activity to take place in the U.S.," he adds.

The competition was judged by: Thomas Maness, dean of the College of Forestry, Oregon State University, in Corvallis, Ore.; Andrew Waugh, founding director, Waugh Thistleton Architects, in London; Alan Organschi, principal, Gray Organschi Architecture, in New Haven, Conn.; Kate Simonen, associate professor, Department of Architecture, College of Built Environments, University of Washington, in Seattle; and Daryl Patterson, head of operational excellence and development, Lend Lease Group.