Salt Lake Tribune: Utah’s first large-scale mass-timber building signals new trend in sustainable construction

By Tim Fitzpatrick  and  Tony Semerad  | March 23, 2023, 6:00 a.m.

In this age of modern building materials, could it be the best stuff is still made out of trees?

Utah is getting its first taste of large-scale, mass-timber building with an office structure under construction in Draper, and it could be the first of many in the state.

The five-story Baltic Pointe building overlooking I-15 will be the new home of Pelion Venture Partners, a venture capital firm that has backed Cloudflare, Divvy and other tech startups. HB Workplaces, the office furniture firm formerly known as Henriksen Butler, will also move its headquarters into the building when it is occupied early next year.

“It’s an old way of building made new again, but there’s really nothing new about it,” said Liza Hart, vice president of design and sustainability at the Gardner Group, the developer and part owner of the building along with Pelion.

The revival in wood construction is driven by climate change. Steel and concrete — the principal building materials in office structures — are among the most carbon-intensive materials to produce. Both require huge amounts of heat that is usually produced by burning fossil fuels because it’s hard to generate enough heat from renewable sources like wind and solar.

Wood, on the other hand, spends its early life removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Then it is cut up and “cross-laminated” to produce structural materials that are stronger than regular lumber and can hold up buildings as high as 25 stories. The cross beams in Baltic Pointe are up to 32 inches thick, and they are produced in processes that generate much less carbon dioxide than equivalent steel and concrete components.

A national trend

More than 1,600 mass timber buildings have been completed, are under construction or are proposed in the United States. They are particularly popular in the Pacific Northwest, where there is plenty of access to lumber. Retail giant Walmart is replacing its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters with a 2.4 million-square foot mass-timber campus sourced from Arkansas forests.

Hart acknowledges that the Baltic Pointe building will still have some steel and concrete, in part because of the specific requirements of the site. The building sits on a slope, and the size of the lot meant putting the building on top of a concrete parking structure. In other mass-timber buildings, the size of the concrete foundation can be smaller because the weight of the building is less.

And the building will have some steel “buckle restraint braces” that are necessary for seismic considerations.

Hart also said the building is a little more expensive than a comparable steel and concrete structure would be. That is partly due to the specific requirements of this project, and partly because there is a learning curve. “It did cost more to do it out of wood, but we did it because we want to get better at it.”

One study from the U.S. Forest Service put the upfront cost of mass timber at 26% higher than concrete, but the study notes that a mass timber building can have a longer life, and the timber can be salvaged, lowering the cost difference over the life of the building.

Closing the cost gap

That’s where Philo Ventures comes in. Philo is a “startup studio” affiliated with Gardner, and Philo Managing Director Chad Staheli said its aim is to spread awareness to builders and invest in technologies that lower costs. “We’re innovating with ways to simplify and standardize the technology and its applications, as has been done with traditional construction materials and methods, in order to drive mass timber costs down and make it more broadly accessible across multiple product types, including industrial and multi-family applications.”

Staheli said that could include drawing more lumber from Utah, which once had a larger lumber industry, but Philo’s main focus is just encouraging widespread adoption of mass timber regardless of the source. The wood at Baltic Pointe comes from a Canadian manufacturer, which ships it to Utah in pieces small enough to fit on trucks.

Gardner received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, which wants to encourage more mass-timber buildings. Danny McBride, deputy director of state, private and tribal forestry for the Forest Service, was hesitant to say mass timber will revive Utah’s lumber industry, but he does think the incentives in the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law could help with that.

He also believes there is “absolutely” enough forest products available to transition a large part of future construction to mass timber. He noted that cross lamination can use smaller pieces of wood that might otherwise be scrap.

The developers are saving money on natural gas lines in the building, and that’s because there aren’t any. Baltic Pointe will be a fully electric building, which Hart sees as essential for a building that will last decades. While Utah’s electricity is still heavily dependent on climate-crashing coal, that dependence is expected to lessen as renewable sources come online later in the life of the building.

The building will be heated by a “variant refrigerant flow system,” which is basically a heat pump that transfers heat to warm and cool the building.

Fire-resistant wood?

Hart says, unlike regular wood-framed buildings, mass timber construction is not at bigger risk for fire because the thick laminated pieces don’t burn like two-by-fours.

“Once you get into mass timber, you have enough wood material it acts the way a large tree does,” she said. If there is a fire, “the old mature trees develop a char layer that protects the wood.”

By comparison, steel construction needs to be sprayed with a fire-resistant coating. “Wood doesn’t require that,” she said.

Architect for the building is Method Studios, and the construction was managed by Okland Construction. BHB Structural Engineers did the engineering work.

Another in Sugar House

Meanwhile, an Illinois-based real estate developer is planning a mass-timber building in Sugar House.

Those familiar with the deal say Harbor Bay Ventures wants to construct a mass-timber apartment building at the high-profile northwest corner of the intersection of Highland Drive and 2100 South.

The complex at 1095 E. 2100 South will tentatively have 229 dwelling units, to be rented at market rate rents. The 1.22-acre site, currently occupied by a Wells Fargo bank, is zoned for commercial uses as part of Sugar House’s central business district, which would allow for a building of up to 105 feet, or about nine stories.

Harbor Bay Ventures, headquartered in Northbrook, Ill., opened a similar building in Cleveland in 2020, with 298 apartments, retail space and an event venue — dubbed the country’s tallest wooden building.

“We’re gonna have new, interesting design and construction at what is arguably one of the single best corners in the entire Wasatch Front,” said Kip Paul, a broker involved in the sale of the Sugar House site and vice chair of investment sales for Cushman & Wakefield, a large brokerage based in Salt Lake City.

“We’re excited for it,” he said.

The Harbor Bay project is at least a year out. Wells Fargo’s existing lease at the location, Paul said, expires at the end of 2023.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.