Advancing sustainability with Michigan’s first tall mass timber building

An eight-story mixed-use mass timber development called SouthTown in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, is projected to be the first tall mass timber building in the state when completed, targeted in summer 2026. Locally based Synecdoche studio director and architect Sidney Filippis is part of the team behind the design.

Synecdoche brings previous experience developing their own projects to the table, making the firm invaluable to clients in helping pro formas pencil out. The firm’s CEO and principal, Lisa Sauvé, serves on Ann Arbor’s Planning Commission, making the firm especially in tune with zoning ordinances and project approvals.

That experience navigating project approvals proved to be crucial as Synecdoche designed its groundbreaking mass timber project in Michigan, where advocates such as Sandra Lupien, director of MassTimber@MSU, a program at Michigan State University, have pushed legislators to update the state building code to adopt 2021 IBC provisions accommodating mass timber. 

Beyond SouthTown, Filippis has worked on projects as small as furniture design and as large as 1 million square feet, and she sees her role as an architect as encompassing not only a project’s drawings, but also its branding, furniture, graphics, and even social impact. Filippis spoke with Think Wood about the SouthTown project, pushing sustainability forward, and advice for practitioners starting their first mass timber project.

Think Wood: What sets Synecdoche apart?

Sidney Filippis: We do a really good job of zooming out and looking at the big picture, but because we also have a fabrication studio [that manufactures custom furniture and objects for projects], we are invested in diving into the small details. We understand the constraints and it helps us have a better relationship with manufacturers and contractors. We’re very into sharing what we’re learning because we want to help others learn too.

How did you get started in mass timber?

The SouthTown project kickstarted it in our office, but we are always working to do more than the minimum. Understanding that sustainability is a goal for our firm and for this community, we are always asking how can we make buildings more sustainable? CLT is a no-brainer. Now the question is, how do we get it into more projects and how do we keep making those projects more sustainable? 

It’s a little bit of educating your clients: What is this? And why should you be excited? It’s a beautiful product and we are excited to continue to work with it.

Is sustainable design internally driven at your firm or are the clients coming to you for sustainable solutions?

We’re pushing that. I think clients appreciate it. Our SouthTown clients are definitely on the same page as us. We’re always asking, how can we make an impact on the greater environment?

Rendering Credit: Synecdoche
Rendering Credit: Synecdoche

What are some of the things that you find exciting about mass timber today?

A lot of manufacturers and maybe engineers will think that architects don’t like things that are standardized, but I love standardized things. I think if you can make that interesting and beautiful, that’s a really great creative challenge. 

What are some of the obstacles to wider adoption of mass timber?

Definitely in Michigan, our building code. We’re super fortunate to have Sandra at MSU. She’s working with our legislators, and I know basically everyone that’s here from Michigan has written a letter to ask them to adopt the 2021 IBC. The most recently completed mass timber project is in Lansing, Michigan, and we went and did a tour with our client and with one of the contractors we were working with so they could see it. I think it’s getting everyone aware that it’s already built, you just need to make it happen more.

What do you think should be some of the common goals that the industry has around the development of technology?

Work collaboratively with your contractor, owner, and engineering team to make the most efficient use of the space so the money can go to the things that they’ll see. And then make it more affordable. 

How are you pushing sustainability forward?

Ann Arbor has a really robust sustainability plan for a small Midwestern town. One way we are pushing sustainability forward is the embodied carbon, but two, we’re looking at sustainability in terms of making a sustainable community. And that’s really where we broadened our goal: We’re making a nice place for people to live. So, the way we shaped SouthTown is because of a desire to create a view cutting through it. The raised garden [at the center of the complex] will bring the community in; we’re thinking that it is more sustainable by including the neighbors. We’re leveraging the whole building as a sustainable building and the CLT as a component. 

Does mass timber help achieve those sustainability goals?

We’ve pointed out to our contractor, the owner, and the planning commission, it goes up quicker. It’s a cleaner construction site that’s more sustainable. Those are really big components.

What advice would you give to other practitioners who are maybe where you were a couple years ago, starting their first project or wanting to get into the industry?

Reach out to organizations like Think Wood and WoodWorks. They’ve been so helpful. We’ve had a regional director from WoodWorks come in to talk about our floor assembly—how we were going to acoustically separate things, and some of our concerns on fire ratings early in the project. Getting into some of those really detail-oriented things before you’re even working on a project, so you can kind of wrap your head around it was really helpful for us. And then making sure you’re also getting experienced people. If it’s your first project in mass timber, find a structural engineer who’s worked on a mass timber project, because then they’re going to bring that knowledge, instead of it being the first for everyone on the team. There’s a huge learning curve, so lean on other people.

There is a growing community of people who have that expertise. Everyone seems eager to spread the knowledge and bring more people into the circle.

Yes. No one’s gatekeeping or hiding these things. It feels like open communication.


This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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