This article originally appeared on Multifamily Executive

Each residence also has a covered balcony that can accomodate up to eight people.
Andrew Pogue Courtesy Path Architecture Carbon12 is an 85 foot tall mass timber building by Kaiser Group + Path Architecture

Ben Kaiser says simple things in profound ways. You could say the same about his buildings.

“I don’t own an acetylene torch, but I do have a saw and a drill,” he says. “What we’re building is returning to what we know. … People are looking for an honest story now, with honest materials—not everything hidden behind drywall.”

Visit Kaiser today at one of his high-rise wood buildings in Portland, Ore., and you’ll see lumber being used in a stark, functional, and award-winningly attractive way. Exposed mass timber beams and panels distinguish both Carbon 12, which in 2018 became at 85 feet the tallest mass timber building in the U.S. to that date, and The Radiator, which on its premiere in 2014 was the biggest mass timber building of its type to be constructed in the U.S. in a century. Coming in August is another mass timber high-rise, The Canyons, designed not just with green principles in mind but also with the goal of gracefully serving an aging and disabled population.

Such a portfolio puts the firm of Kaiser Group + Path Architecture in the lead ranks of America’s mass timber project developers. And from that place among the vanguard, Kaiser sees both the benefits and challenges of embracing mass timber.

The condo interiors feature exposed Douglas fir columns, beams, and ceilings.
Andrew Pogue Courtesy Path Architecture Carbon12's condo interiors feature exposed Douglas fir columns, beams, and ceilings.

Kaiser’s advocacy of wood starts with an explanation of lumber’s green benefits. But then he quickly adds many other reasons to use mass timber: It’s lighter than steel and concrete, easier to assemble at the job site, can be stronger than steel and concrete as well as more fire-resistant, can survive earthquakes better, and looks good to boot.

Strong as those arguments are, they haven’t yet persuaded all the developer community. “Developers don’t innovate—there’s no advantage. There’s risk,” Kaiser says. “Well, maybe you’ll innovate with a fitness room, but not with a whole new building material.”

And while products like cross-laminated timber (CLT) might be well-known in Europe, they are newcomers to North American discussions of how to erect buildings. “The first subs asked ‘What is this TLC stuff?” Kaiser recalls. “They didn’t even know it was called CLT.” There was a similar challenge getting regulators up to speed.

Carbon12, an eight-story condominium tower in Portland, Ore., features retail space, underground parking, and 14 residential units.
Andrew Pogue courtesy Path Architecture Carbon12, an eight-story condominium tower in Portland, Ore., features retail space, underground parking, and 14 residential units.

Kaiser says he was able to do his projects because Kaiser + Path is an architectural firm, a developer, and a general contractor all wrapped into one business. “The only way we could do this is to remove the profit centers,” he says. “If we had to pay everyone separately, we couldn’t have afforded it.”

That said, Kaiser adds that with each new mass timber project nationwide, costs are dropping because all the major contributors are getting more familiar—and comfortable—with the product. That includes Portland’s regulators and code officials, for which Kaiser’s buildings employed building concepts that were relatively uncommon just a few years ago. But now that he has his proofs of concept, Kaiser believes he already has figured out how to cut his costs by 20%.

For instance, Kaiser + Path had to shell out extra dollars on Radiator post-construction when Portland’s winter rains caused rust stains from bolts connecting the beams. Carbon 12 avoided that problem because Kaiser specified the connections get an epoxy whitewash.

Carbon 12, winner of ThinkWood’s 2019 Wood Design Award for best multifamily building, begins with 41 steel pilings driven 45 feet deep, topped by a concrete slab. From that podium, Kaiser + Path used glulams for the post-and-beam frame and CLTs for the floors and ceilings. Arguments that mass timber buildings are a fire danger were countered by specifying that all 2x6s used must be fire-treated wood. (CLT panels already have been rated as meeting fire safety requirements.) All told, the 14 residential units with a ground-floor lobby and retail space add up to 32,500 square feet.

The Canyons will be 20 feet shorter but, at 110,000 square feet, be nearly three times bigger. It was inspired in part by Kaiser’s elderly father as well as by a Carbon 12 resident, a quadriplegic who loved that building’s underground mechanical parking system and an elevator that opened to her apartment. “Holly is 40,” Kaiser says. “[Her experience] woke me up to the fact that buildings are designed for 32-year-olds. This will be a barrier-free design, but when you walk in you wouldn’t know it’s universally designed.” Another feature: The concierge will be a full-fledged paramedic.

What’s next? Kaiser + Path has received a grant to conduct feasibility research on a 36-story, 576,000-square-foot building for downtown Portland dubbed The Spar. The goal is to pave the way for more mid- and high-rise construction in this lumber-focused city known as Stumptown.

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