Think Wood: Hi Steven, we’re excited to chat with you. Let’s start with a bit about your background and how you came to be interested in mass timber.
Steven Paynter: I grew up visiting Norway and Scandinavia and appreciated how these regions were innovating with timber construction. Early on, I developed a love and affinity for wood as a building material and when I started my career in the UK, I had an opportunity to use mass timber in a number of public projects—secondary schools, universities, and a hospital—where I began to see its potential. Mass timber was generally limited to lower rise construction and some hybrid designs at the time, typically post and beam structures or as main features in public spaces and atriums. Then about 15 years ago, I relocated to the North American market where I’ve further explored mass timber and wood’s design possibilities. This started with the redevelopment of an early 20th century heavy timber building, and has continued from there, leading to my recent work on a prototype for a tall timber, net-zero high-rise.
TW: Can you tell us more about this tall timber prototype?
SP: The project is a collaboration with urban innovation company Sidewalk Labs and explores how factory-produced timber buildings can grow even taller by designing a model at 35 stories—a height that’s yet to be achieved in practice. We call this Proto-Model X 35—or PMX 35. It’s a mass timber prototype of a net-zero tower that we can use for testing, like a concept car in the auto industry. Having a prototype like this is a way for us to push boundaries through digital modeling.
PMX 35 is designed in a way that allows 100% of the above grade structure and about 90% of the facade system and MEP to be fabricated offsite. This was incredibly challenging to achieve and we repeatedly reran our modeling to reduce the number of unique parts in the building, to increase the standardization. As an example, we started with 3,500+ unique floor panels and by the time we finished, we were down to six. We also managed to greatly reduce the per piece install time by streamlining connection details. All in all, the project has required a lot of detailed analysis and patient problem solving—and it’s become an important and pivotal project for Gensler.
TW: PMX 35 models tall wood construction, which is a new frontier. From your perspective, what are the advantages of building with mass timber?
SP: The things that made mass timber a great material for centuries still apply today. Aesthetically, we are drawn to wood as a natural material. It’s lightweight and easy to work with—an advantage over other heavy, carbon-intensive materials. This makes mass timber well suited for prefabrication. It’s really through offsite construction with a factory mindset that we can achieve efficiencies that translate into cutting carbon and increasing affordability.
Mass timber offers the chance to create something beautiful and sustainable in a way that no other structural material does. When it comes to climate change, the construction and building industry is on the hook for nearly 50% of all global CO2. Now is the time for us to change that and be more proactive as an industry.
TW: Speaking of being proactive, how can mass timber help Gensler achieve the firm’s climate goals?
SP: The Gensler Cities Climate Challenge (GC3) is intended to set a new standard for reducing all carbon emissions in the built environment by 2030. To meet this ambitious goal, we need to reduce the carbon footprint of building materials, something that mass timber can help us achieve. Timber buildings can weigh up to 20% less than a comparable concrete building and the foundation size is also reduced, ultimately contributing to a reduction in embodied energy. Recent studies of timber buildings have shown over a 20% reduction in embodied carbon, and we are in the process of conducting a similar analysis on the PMX building that we expect will reveal similar, if not better, results. I think mass timber is a key part of making building more sustainable, addressing global challenges, and achieving our climate goals, both as a firm and as a broader industry.
TW: You specialize in commercial office design. With the rise of remote working, what does the office of tomorrow look like?
SP: The rise in remote working is definitely having an impact. Today, post-pandemic remote work means office designs need to do more to engage; they need to provide an employee experience and you need to ultimately convey your company culture in two days a week, not five. One thing we are really seeing is that when clients are designing or redeveloping office space, they’re looking to provide something special, an experience that reinforces a positive culture. They’re also looking for flexibility and adaptability, as well as healthy, inviting spaces with good ventilation and air quality. Mass timber offers an opportunity to achieve many of those things. Aesthetically, it offers warmth and I believe even changes the mood of everyone in the space for the better.
TW: Where do you see mass timber design and construction headed in the future?
SP: For me, the goal is that we stop treating it as a special niche material and see it as a valid, sustainable material for a broad spectrum of buildings. As a firm, we’re starting to explore and conceptualize our first all mass timber neighborhoods, and to me that would be an amazing next step in the evolution of our work. That’s the scale and scope that we need to make that larger impact—and to cut carbon emissions substantially. In the next five years I would like to see mass timber become “the norm” in design and by 2030 it should be the first choice of structure in most of our projects below 12 stories. That’s where we need to get to in order to meet our GC3 goals. This has to be the future.