Advocating for Widespread Adoption of Mass Timber in Construction

Expert Erica Spiritos promotes sustainability through the bones of a building. Here’s her story.

This Women’s History Month, in celebration of female leaders in the multifamily industry, Multi-Housing News is sharing the voice of several women with stand-out achievements in their field.

Erica Spiritos’ professional successes exuberate a truly altruistic spirit—early on, she spent her time and energy on activities like researching opportunities to include innovation for remote communities, designing household-scale desalination systems for families in the Gaza Strip and leading groups of high school students on service learning and wilderness trips in Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colorado and India.

Since 2015, she set her focus on urban construction using sustainable structural materials. Now, Spiritos is a preconstruction manager at Swinerton-affiliate Timberlab, having built her way up by 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 mass timber construction.

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

What ignited this passion for wood and its derivates?

Erica Spiritos, Preconstruction Manager, Timberlab

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

Spiritos: My passion for timber construction stems from a desire to build cities more ecologically, in ways that reinforce our connection to nature. Simply put, timber is the only rapidly renewable structural material in our repertoire.

One of the beautiful things that happens when designing a mass timber building is that people want to know where the wood comes from. I don’t hear too many folks wanting to understand where the sand in their concrete mix comes from, and yet that is a critical question. The more we understand where our materials come from and the associated impacts of consuming these resources on people and planet, the more apt we will be to make better decisions about our resource consumption.

Where does the wood used in the production of mass timber come from? Are there presently sufficient manufacturing and production mass timber facilities?

Spiritos: The Pacific Northwest, Eastern Canada and the southeastern U.S. are the primary regions that provide wood for the production of mass timber. These regions all share an abundance of coniferous—softwood—trees used to manufacture CLT and glulam, and so the manufacturing facilities have located themselves near these fiber baskets.

Mass timber manufacturers are not currently operating at capacity and so, right now, the supply chain is large enough to meet the current demand. That said, we expect the number of mass timber buildings constructed to double every two years, and so, at some point, we will need more glulam and CLT capacity. I hope that these manufacturing facilities are spread out across the country to allow for regional procurement of mass timber.

What are mass timber’s properties that make it such a popular construction material? Does it also have weaknesses?

Spiritos: Mass timber is multifunctional: It is structure, fireproofing and finish material wrapped up into one beautiful element, installed by a single trade. Mass timber, like all structural materials, has strengths and weaknesses and must be utilized appropriately. We see developers wanting to utilize timber in speculative commercial buildings and to achieve the same spans as a steel structure. A timber beam does not want to span 45 feet. One might think of this as a weakness, or we might consider that a timber column could be an amenity to a space.

The Ascent. Image courtesy of Timberlab

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

Spiritos: Yes! Many jurisdictions across the country have adopted the use of timber in tall buildings up to 18 stories—permitted as 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 timber takes the stage next to concrete and steel as a viable structural system for mid-rise and high-rise construction, offering opportunities for schedule savings and a reduced carbon footprint.

Let’s talk about wildfires, which in the last years have been creating havoc across the western U.S. A lot of land, and implicitly wood, has been lost to these natural events. Is there anything we can do to prevent the reoccurrence of such intense wildfires?

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

My understanding is that after the U.S. passed the Endangered Species Act, we severely limited forest management—harvesting—on public lands, and now many of those forests are overstocked, and that density is increasing the severity of wildfires. Coupled with the rising temperatures we are experiencing from climate change, the results are tragic.

We may not be able to slow the rising temperatures, but we can choose to restore unmanaged forests to a more ecologically resilient condition, which often means doing selective thinning of trees that could be used in mass timber buildings. So, yes, in this way, choosing to build a mass-timber building could help mitigate wildfire risk. Interestingly, however, mass timber only accounts for 2 percent of all softwood lumber consumption in the U.S. right now, so the impact may be small. But it’s growing.

The Ascent. Image courtesy of Timberlab

The Ascent. Image courtesy of Timberlab

The hefty price rise of lumber must be one of the biggest barriers in working more with mass timber—the price more than tripled over the past two years. At the same time, the cost of all construction materials has risen to vertiginous heights. What are your expectations for lumber prices?

Spiritos: The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on global supply chains across all sectors of the economy. Lumber is a commodity that fluctuates in price over the course of the year based on several factors, and yes, we did see unusual price spikes in the last two years. That said, the price of steel has increased significantly more than did the price of lumber. We expect prices to normalize later this year, and we have not seen folks deterred from designing with mass timber for fear of commodity fluctuation.

READ ALSO: Seattle Project Showcases Mass Timber’s Strengths

What other challenges are there presently to a wider adoption of mass timber? What are the temporary workarounds and what are the long-term solutions to these barriers?

Spiritos: The biggest hurdles to the adoption of mass timber are design and construction expertise, and the perception of risk. These hurdles can be overcome with education and training, but that takes time.

Timberlab does a lot of industry education in an effort to accelerate the mainstream adoption of mass timber, and many of our projects are with owners and architects new to mass timber. There is a learning curve, with proper detailing of the building and with the process of delivering a prefabricated kit of parts. I think the strategy has been for mass timber manufacturers, fabricators, builders to take on the detailing and coordination of these buildings because they have the expertise in-house.

The Ascent. Image courtesy of Timberlab

The Ascent. Image courtesy of Timberlab

Tell us about the project you’re most proud of. 

Spiritos: The Ascent project is an obvious front-runner for Timberlab. Our team worked with the design team for two years to help optimize the building, prior to us procuring any material. I’m proud of this project for what it says to the AEC industry about what is possible with timber, and for the collaboration that brought it to life. We performed three-hour fire testing for glulam columns and delivered a two-hour rated beam-column connection that was buildable and economical—when the only other tested assembly on the market was unaffordable.

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

Spiritos: As director of preconstruction at Timberlab, I work on almost all of our projects in some capacity. Right now, I’m really excited by the work we are doing with two different health-care providers to design mass timber medical office buildings. Mass timber is challenging for MOBs due to the high live load and stringent vibration requirements, but mass timber also makes so much sense from an aesthetic standpoint given the physiological benefits of timber. How fantastic to promote health through the very bones of the building!

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

Spiritos: We need new voices and perspectives in the construction industry. I encourage women to bring their authentic self to the table and speak up. Just because things have been done a certain way for decades doesn’t mean that’s the right way.

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