Now as director of emerging building technology at 2023 AIA Architecture Firm Award–winning Mithun, Curtis continues to be a force for design innovation. He was a lead author on a report about the benefits of using mass timber in schools that identified the material’s positive impact on the carbon footprint and speed of construction of education projects and, perhaps most importantly, on student and staff well-being.

Mithun has worked on mass timber projects in an array of typologies, including primary and secondary education, market rate and affordable housing, civic centers, museums, and more. Curtis spoke with Think Wood about the latest research and innovations in mass timber construction.

Think Wood: Director of Emerging Building Technology is an incredible job title. What do you get to play with? What are the types of technologies that you’re looking at?

Craig Curtis: It is a fun position. Most of my time is spent on mass timber projects, but also anything that involves building platform design, kit of parts design, or prefabrication. We’ve done some full volumetric modular work. That’s where my passion is and that’s what I get involved in.

Are you working on specific projects, bigger-picture design strategies, or all of the above?

All of the above. We currently have mass timber projects in all three of our major practice areas within Mithun: urban placemaking, which is our multifamily group; creative workplace, or commercial office; and our education group. I get to work in all three market sectors, which is really exciting.

What are you excited to see as mass timber continues to develop?

I see change that is going to really make a huge impact on the industry. The construction companies have embraced mass timber, and now there’s a race to get out in front. Swinerton led the way with what they did with Timberlab, and now you see other general contractors emulating that. That may be the thing that changes the industry: the embracing of the movement by the general contractors.

Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Youth (CDHY) Campus Expansion
Location: Vancouver, WA | Rendering Credit: Mithun

Mass timber projects require more coordination upfront to fully capitalize on the benefits of the material. How is that changing your workflow?

If you look at the architecture firms that are finding success entering the mass timber movement, these are top design firms. And I think the reason that is the case is because top design firms already think that way. Firms like Miller Hull, when I was the lead designer on the Bullitt Center, the only way we could achieve the first commercial Living Building was incredible collaboration with our entire engineering team. And I love working that way; I think the best design firms love working that way. Everything is so organized.

It’s not just the top design firms, it’s the top sustainable design firms. The two are becoming one and the same. The trajectories have converged. Was going for LEED certification a harbinger of this?

We were definitely all doing it. In the operational carbon side of things, we’re very used to digging in with our mechanical and electrical engineers. What’s different now is that the structural engineering is so critically important. With this material, you have to have a relationship with your structural engineer to do it right.

What does post occupancy look like for mass timber structures?

I would like to see more effort put into post-occupancy evaluations of mass timber projects. Not only cost, but did it lease up faster, or were the rents a little bit higher? That kind of data is fantastic. And on the other side, I talk about the data around the biophilic advantages of mass timber. That’s what I’m really passionate about. I think that it actually does make a difference in people’s lives and health and wellness.

It seems like there’s a growing awareness of wood’s biophilic benefits for occupants.

And I think that’s why tech companies are moving in this direction, too. They have their ESG goals, their carbon footprint commitments, but honestly, it’s a better place for their people to work. And if you increase productivity by a few percentage points, it’s paid for your mass timber building.

You mentioned your project areas. How are you approaching mass timber in these typologies, which are pretty new for nonresidential uses of wood? How are you taking biophilia into account and how is mass timber helping you get there?

We’ve published the kit of parts for our school projects on our website, open source. We want everyone to have access to it. The structural framework of that system is important as part of the biophilic environment. We’re trying to incorporate wood more than just at the columns, the beams, and the ceiling, bringing some of those materials down to where you can touch them. There’s a fear that people will damage it. And it’s not happening. I think people take care. There’s something about wood that people just take care of and respect.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that’s still facing mass timber before we hit a point where we’re really looking at more widespread adoption of the material?

I think it comes down to the cost. But we continue to make progress there and these projects are proving we’re at that tipping point.

The Bush School New Upper School
Location: Seatle, WA | Photo Credit: Lara Swimmer

Mithun explores how mass timber schools could boost well-being, cut carbon, and remain flexible without breaking the bank.

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.

After moving into real estate development, she served as development manager for Gerding Edlen Development (now Edlen & Co.), where she worked on student housing, civic projects, and public-private partnerships, and then as a partner with project^ for 12 years, with a focus on shepherding development projects through entitlements and construction.

In 2020, Hallová launched her own firm, Adre, to focus on real estate projects that seek to create wealth for the Black community and for other underrepresented groups. She has also been very engaged with civic work. She is currently serving as Chair of the U.S Green Building Council, and she also serves as Chair for Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission, working to improve housing equity and climate-friendly planning. She holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University and a master’s degree in city planning from MIT. Think Wood spoke with Hallová about how developers can make their projects more eco-friendly and equitable while using mass timber.

Meyer Memorial Trust HQ: Building exterior and public entry
Meyer Memorial Trust
Photo Credit: Jeremy Bittermann

Think Wood: Your career pathway as a developer is unique. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into sustainable real estate development?

Anyeley Hallová: Yes, my journey to development is a long one. After completing an undergraduate degree in environmental systems technology, I went abroad to Costa Rica to study sustainable development in the 1990s. This experience inspired me to pursue a career that would involve working with the three pillars of sustainability—economic viability, social equity, and environmental stewardship. I eventually went into city planning and then got a degree in landscape architecture. 

I participated in the ULI Hines Student Competition, which was my first exposure to development; I later began practicing as an urban designer and working with developers, but found that sustainability wasn’t always part of the equation. This drove me to switch to development. I thought if I could become the client, I could dictate the terms of the engagement and focus on more sustainable development. After gaining experience working in the field and after completing the Meyer Memorial Trust Headquarters—a project that made equitable design a central focus—I could not help but want to incorporate social equity into all of my future projects. For that reason, I started my own company with the intention of focusing on social equity issues as rigorously as I do sustainability.

You bring an important perspective that has been missing in real estate development. Can you talk a little more about that, and your firm’s mission?

The obvious thing that sets me apart is that I am a Black woman. Statistics show that less than 1% of developers are Black and/or Hispanic. So if you take Black and then if you take women, I don’t even know that there’s a stat that’s that small. As a result, I bring something really unique to the table with my lived experience as a Black woman. Having lived through certain experiences and having a passion for community—when you have that at the top leading a development project, it can empower and change the dynamics of the team, allowing them to focus on and push the limits on issues related to equity and sustainability. We want to bring innovation in sustainability and innovation in social equity. 

You’ve also been an early adopter of mass timber construction. What got you started in tall timber and the idea of using more engineered wood in development projects? 

We got our start, essentially, with the U.S. Tallwood Building Prize. At my last development company, we had a client who really focused on sustainability and saw an opportunity to explore more sustainable materials—which led us to explore mass timber more. That project eventually became Framework. While the project was never built, the R&D resulted in the first permitted high-rise made from wood in the United States, and was instrumental in the changes to the International Building Code that allow for taller wood buildings throughout the entire United States. The same team members went on to do Oregon Conservation Center and some worked on the Meyer Memorial Trust Headquarters. Both of these projects incorporate mass timber in pretty innovative ways. And Adre is now working on The Killingsworth Project—a creative commercial building focused on seismic resilience and equitable outcomes.

Rendering Credit: project^ | LEVER Architecture

Can you share more about The Killingsworth Project?

The Killingsworth Project is a three-story creative workspace focused on seismic resilience. It’s located within the historically Black community in Portland, Oregon. We received partial funding for it through the Softwood Lumber Board and the USDA Forest Service’s 2022 Mass Timber Competition. It’s designed with an innovative CLT rocking-wall technology to be seismically resilient with the ability to rock and recenter after a major earthquake with “little to no damage.”

We just finished the schematic design and are now in design development. We’re following a performance-based review process with the City of Portland, which we’ve just kicked off. Peer reviewers are reviewing our work. We’ve been permitted at the city level, and are looking for investors and applying for grants to support the innovation side of the project.

Sounds like the project is gaining good traction, and has a growing number of supporters. 

Yes, we are getting good interest in the project. We are going to have tenants in the building that all have a passion for these issues and care deeply about diversity, equity, and social responsibility. And we’ve had interest from a regional bank in terms of providing more potential funding. 

What are some ways mass timber can help boost sustainability and, at the same time, help make development projects more equitable?

I also believe it’s important for us to ask:  Who is this building for, and who is going to benefit from it? Are they included in a truly meaningful way? There are many biophilic and health benefits to being in a wood building. And with more equitable development, those benefits can be felt by all communities, not just those in typical class A spaces.

The Killingsworth Project
Rendering Credit: Adre | LEVER Architecture
Williams & Russell Project
Rendering Credit: Adre | LEVER Architecture

Are there any future projects on Adre’s horizon that you’re really excited about?

There’s one project—the Williams & Russell Project—that is bringing it all together for us. Historically, the site once was part of a thriving Black community in Portland and the goal is to revive this urban space for that community once again. We responded to an RFP coordinated by Williams & Russell Community Development Corporation and we were successful in our proposal. This project includes three different components: The first is a Black Business Hub for organizations and companies vested in growing Black business in Oregon, which will use cross-laminated timber. Secondly, an Affordable Homeownership Project—20 homes—for Black residents, and we’re currently thinking that it will be built using light-frame wood construction. And the third is an affordable apartment building, which will be supported and led by PCRI, a local community development corporation that focuses on Black-serving initiatives like this. It’s an exciting project for us. It will help people who have been displaced due to gentrification come back to the neighborhood. It will increase home ownership and is in line with Adre’s focus on intergenerational wealth creation for the Black community. 

We also received a grant for the project from the Energy Trust of Oregon, as part of what they called a Net Zero Fellowship, to essentially understand the feasibility of making this a net-zero campus—net-zero energy, waste and water. It’s exciting as this project is really comprehensive—it taps into all of the environmental, sustainability and equitable values we are working towards at Adre.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

After experience working on the construction side with two different developers, Scott founded Cutler Development in 2016 with a primary focus on infill projects in established neighborhoods that integrate affordable housing into environmentally progressive design concepts. Molly joined in 2021 after spending nearly a decade as a chemical engineer. Together, the developers have made it a priority to create housing that’s not only affordable, but also a place anyone would be proud to live. Think Wood sat down with them to learn more about their latest projects and where they see mass timber construction going in the future.

Junction Lofts
Photo Credit: Cutler Development

Think Wood: Tell us about Cutler Development and the types of projects you work on?

Molly Cutler: Our mission is to develop residential and mixed-use commercial projects that better neighborhoods, society, and the environment. We’re focused mostly on urban infill projects that offer affordability, good walkability, access to public transit and a chance to boost density. We focus on affordable housing for households in the 30–80% AMI [area median income] range. Achieving that mix takes a lot of support from the city, county, and federal agencies, and we’ve been really lucky to establish good relationships at each level and secure funding. Along with improving the environment through denser, transit-oriented, smarter development, we have done things like getting everyone in the building access to bus passes, incorporating more bike storage, and more recently we turned to mass timber as a more sustainable building material.

How did you come to your interest in using mass timber for your development projects?

Scott Cutler: We actually just recently completed Junction Lofts, one of Iowa’s first mass timber apartments, featuring commercial on the first floor and a mixture of offices and multifamily housing on floors two and three. We hadn’t initially planned for this building to be mass timber, but our architect [Pelds Design Service] went to an AIA conference and heard a WoodWorks presentation on mass timber and he knew how much our team valued environmental design concepts. He did this great thing by bringing this new idea back to the team, and we were so excited about it that we asked him to redesign the whole building.

MC: In fact, we took a significant risk, having first designed 60% of the building to follow a more conventional steel-and-concrete structure. We had no connections to mass timber suppliers or manufacturers. We’ve been able to use WoodWorks on that project and on subsequent projects to connect us to industry experts and their carbon calculator online. So we redesigned that whole project as mass timber and it’s been a big learning experience for us.

Junction Lofts +Star Lofts

  • Junction Lofts
  • Star Lofts (Before)
  • Star Lofts (After)

Are you continuing to use mass timber as a primary structure for your future projects, and what role does it play in achieving your environmental goals?

MC: We’re definitely keen on continuing to innovate with mass timber. The construction of the Star Lofts project is just getting underway and I think using mass timber and other eco-friendly materials is top of mind for us. In addition to its affordable housing goals, the project has some pretty ambitious environmental goals, and mass timber is definitely a contributor to that. In fact, we’re designing it to meet the International Living Future Institute’s Zero Carbon Certification. A lot goes into achieving that and mass timber plays an important role. To get the zero rating you have to cut embodied carbon emissions by at least 10% compared to a standard building and then offset the rest. Other things we are looking at is using natural slate rather than fired brick, and lower-carbon concrete. And then on the operational side, we have to cut operational carbon emissions by 25% and then offset the rest through on- or offsite renewables. 

How does mass timber make your projects better, beyond embodied carbon?

SC: Making projects more affordable is a big priority for us, without compromising on quality. Mass timber does offer opportunities for cost savings, through prefab and faster construction. Another thing we really like is that it allows for elevated slabs to be left exposed rather than covered with a flooring material that often ends up being a petroleum-based product. So, the exposed mass timber and concrete works well together, reduces unnecessary cladding, and just offers a really durable and attractive occupant experience. 

What role does the architecture team play in making your mass timber projects a success and expanding its use?

MC: Architects definitely play an important role and with the annual International Mass Timber Conference, we are seeing more and more architects get on board. So that’s a way to really expand—once more architecture firms are pushing for designing with mass timber, I think it can really take off. For our first mass timber project, it was the architect who brought forward the idea, and we quickly got on board. With our second mass timber project we started with the goal of using mass timber and a conscious decision to build a carbon-neutral building. And we have used different architects on different projects, which I think helps expand and grow the expertise here in the Des Moines area. We hope the architects we are working with go on to do other mass timber projects with other developers. We’d love to work with both of them again, but we also hope that they’re getting business with other developers and pushing what is possible with mass timber.

Where do you see mass timber construction going in the future when it comes to real estate development?

MC: We just recently learned of a mass timber building that’s getting built in Atlanta in which the developer on the project is considering selling the embodied carbon saved by the project as an offset for another company. So just the fact that we’re even having that conversation is really exciting. I think for Cutler Development, our area of focus will be to continue chipping away at cutting embodied carbon. We’re definitely looking at mass timber as a great building material for the future—and keen to see what comes next.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Cutlers recently participated as panelists in “Unlocking Mass Timber Affordability,” an Architectural Record continuing education webinar.

In almost half a century of professional practice, Chicago-based Ross Barney has built an extraordinarily wide range of structures and urban spaces. With no specific style that defines her work, she develops multiple solutions to every project and works with her client to choose which direction to pursue together. “I paid for that for a long time,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Carol’s a good architect, but she has no signature.’” But over the course of her career, this method of practice has been recognized for its ability to create a rich dialogue between architect and client that encourages multiple voices to contribute to a decidedly democratic process. This results in more nuanced and successful projects that better serve the communities that interact with them—and that are diverse in their design approach.

Barney’s breakthrough project was the masonry-and-glass Oklahoma City Federal Building which replaced the Alfred P. Murrah Building that had been destroyed in a 1995 domestic terrorist attack. Other projects are as varied as a brightly colored masonry post office in the Chicago suburbs whose colors and façade patterns invoked the American flag and her reimagining of the Chicago Riverwalk, which has redefined the city’s relationship to the Chicago river and new public spaces throughout downtown.

McDonald’s Global Flagship Chicago
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick
McDonald’s Global Flagship Chicago
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick

More recently, Ross Barney’s designs have embraced more timber alongside other building materials, including in several McDonalds’ restaurants (not a building type that has been frequently associated with wood). Think Wood spoke with her in her office, a timber-framed loft that previously housed Chicago legend Harry Weese’s offices in Chicago’s River North neighborhood.

Think Wood: What do you see as the role of wood in architecture today?

Carol Ross Barney: The idea of making CLT or engineered timbers is a new thing for Americans, but we are using it. The codes are being amended, and people want it. It’s a human material; It was living at one time. There is some sort of comfort with it; it’s psychological and emotional. 

By its nature, architecture and design are trying to find a material or an assembly of materials that use the least amount of resources in the best way. This is the challenge for this generation—not just of architects, but of world citizens. If we don’t solve this, it’s over.

Let’s talk about some of your recent wood projects. Your design for the McDonald’s Chicago flagship that opened in 2018 creates a series of public spaces beneath a monumental canopy. The restaurant itself is a much smaller structure that sits beneath the trellis and features a steel and engineered wood frame and a CLT roof slab. How did you convince them to incorporate wood?

McDonald’s didn’t have any mandate. We told them we wanted to do a [LEED] Platinum building. I don’t like to talk about LEED because it’s about counting points and I’m more interested in concepts, but counting points helped us to do that building with timber. It’s the first CLT building in Chicago. But it’s not very big, so it was easy.

Searle Visitor Center
Photo Credit: Kendall McCaugherty, Hall+Merrick

The Searle Visitor Center, also completed in 2018 in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, provides a striking wood canopy that protects the main entrance for the city’s zoo. How did this design evolve in wood?

We told [structural engineer Bob Magruder] we wanted to create tree-like shade. We wanted do a really lightweight canopy and he suggested stressed panels. They look like they’re floating. We wanted to make the transition from building to garden, since it’s a zoological garden. When you walk through there, it looks like it’s magic.

Are you using wood construction in upcoming projects?

We have one building now that we’re designing in New York, a public building for the Hamptons. It’s a community center. The town of East Hampton has passed an ordinance requiring that their buildings be net zero [energy]. We encouraged them to look at net zero carbon, as well. If you’re going to do that, there are only a few products. Everybody naturally looks at wood because it’s basically carbon capture. 

You also took part in the recent ‘Come Home Chicago: Missing Middle Infill Housing Competition,’ sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Center, which asked architects to reimagine the city’s single-family home, two- and three-flat, rowhouse and six-flat typologies for today. While your design wasn’t chosen as a finalist, why did you decide to explore the use of CLT in your concept?

Since we’ve built in CLT, our entry was entirely about timber and the idea that you could standardize a panel. We standardized the design on a 13-foot panel, which is half the width of a city lot in Chicago. We proposed to use it both in bearing and for the floor. And we purposely made it the simplest building that you could possibly think about. We did the townhouse so that we could standardize it and build it inexpensively. This material has so many admirable and desirable qualities.

What challenges do you still see for broader wood and timber adoption in the building industry?

I’m really frustrated that you can’t use wood as an exterior material here [in Chicago]. 

But it seems like a lot of the technical challenges about wood in general—whether you’re talking about engineered wood or timber or CLT—they seem to be solved. The regulatory obstacles are not gone, but they are being addressed. 

When we suggest using it, the biggest challenge is finding manufacturing and production. The US hasn’t really developed that capacity yet and I don’t know how fast you can do it. But I hope they develop fast. I have clients that want wood buildings.

What are some of the things that influence how you think about the material?

I bought a house in New Mexico during COVID, so I had a place to go in the winter. There are all these forts that were built between the Civil War and the turn of the century. When residents abandoned them, they took the few pieces of timber—the window frames, the roof beams—with them. They bothered to disassemble it. That’s how precious wood was and how valuable it is in the Southwest. Wow.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The Neutral Project is focused on developing carbon-neutral mixed-use and multifamily buildings that reduce embodied carbon emissions and minimize operational carbon emissions, an approach it roots in building with mass timber, designing using passive building principles, and verifying the approach through third-party life cycle analysis. 

Designed by Chicago-based HPA Architecture, The Edison will be built using a hybrid engineered wood system, with a CLT floor system, glulam columns, and concrete beams, stairs, and cores. Instead of drywall, the timber beams, columns, and ceiling will be left mostly exposed to achieve biophilic benefits for building occupants. Floor-to-ceiling glass will highlight views of Lake Michigan, allow for natural light, and expose the beauty of the wood assembly. 

“Wood is the best principal material available for building structures when considering total energy use, carbon emissions, and water usage,” the developer said in a press release. The Neutral Project is also developing Baker’s Place, a 14-story mass timber mixed-use development with 206 homes that has begun construction in Madison, Wisconsin. Angus-Young Associates is the architect and structural engineer on Baker’s Place, and Michael Green Architecture is the project designer.

Think Wood spoke with The Neutral Project’s managing partner Nate Helbach about The Edison and why Milwaukee is such fertile ground for tall timber today.

The Edison
Render Credit: HPA Architecture
Building-Use Diagram

Think Wood: How did you get involved with building development? And how did you launch the Neutral Project?

Nate Helbach: I am a Wisconsin native, originally from Middleton, a suburb of Madison. I was at Harvard Extension School working on a sustainability degree and I was working full-time for a developer doing developments throughout Wisconsin—mostly in the low-rise multifamily market. The Neutral Project was a thesis I developed in school: to build carbon-neutral developments that reduce both embodied and operational carbon in the built environment. 

It was one of those things you develop in class and then you put on the shelf. But I had this unique opportunity to start the firm with two German investors who seeded me. They came in and said, “Hey, we really think that this idea of creating a company around sustainability is something that is unique in America, but prevalent in Europe.” There’s a lot of investment dollars in Europe that are now coming to the United States that are investing in projects that have ESG-focused initiatives.

When we started the Neutral Project, we thought we were going to conquer the world. Then when you get into the details, you get slapped in the face with all the challenges. People aren’t doing this because it’s very challenging. 

What spurred you to consider mass timber for your projects?

One of the things we look at is: What components of the building have the largest contribution to embodied carbon? The number one component is structure. Really the two structural components you can use are steel or concrete, but there’s this new mass timber that we can use, as well.

How has your most recent multifamily project, The Edison, evolved?

We acquired the site in late 2021. The original design was 15 stories. We decided to increase the scale because of financial feasibility. At 15 stories, the site wasn’t feasible. The land basis was too high, the construction costs were too high, and the returns were too low. So, what did we do? We said, let’s go larger. And if you, if you go larger, you get unique economies of scale that come from increasing the size of the building.

How tall might it be?

We’re at 32 stories right now, and our architect just said: “That’s it, we’re done. You have to stop designing more stories because we’ve added five or six floors during design.” 

That’s where we’re going to stay and move forward with our design concept throughout the summer, fall, and hopefully get in the ground by January of next year.

It seems Milwaukee is a hotbed of tall timber today. Why?

I think the main reason is because the authorities having jurisdiction are proponents of mass timber. That is hard to find right now because within the current Wisconsin building code there is actually no provision for heavy timber. We’re about to be in the 2018 [International Building Code], but Wisconsin still falls under the 2015 IBC. And within 2015, all you have is the old, antiquated Type IV, which is only for six stories.

As a developer, one of the biggest risks using mass timber is you have to go through a pretty intensive design process, pay your designers and structural engineers, and then you might get approval. You might get your permits from the city, but there’s a huge risk that if they’re against it, to just flat out deny it and say, no, you have to build with concrete. So the reason I think Milwaukee is a huge city for mass timber is because the authorities having jurisdiction are behind the actual material, including fire, building, city services—all those different state and city agencies that have to approve your building plans.

So, they’re all in alignment in Milwaukee at the moment?

Yes. We had a meeting at the fire department four or five weeks ago. Usually, the fire department in any city is kind of pessimistic. But the City of Milwaukee fire department was cheering us on about how much they enjoyed mass timber, which is good.

What’s next for mass timber in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin formed a mass timber task force within the Department of Safety and Professional Services. That task force’s main job is to engage with government, city, and the private sector with the goal of having more mass timber in Wisconsin. They’re talking about adopting 2024 IBC. That would allow Type IV that allows for more exposed timber framing, which is one of the big benefits from the development standpoint. If you build this beautiful mass timber building, you want the tenants or residents or anyone going to the building seeing these beautiful glulam columns, beams, and CLT decks.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Southstone Yards

  • Render credit: Crow Holdings Development
  • Render credit: Crow Holdings Development
  • Render credit: Crow Holdings Development

Think Wood: What’s your background?

Cody Armbrister: I’ve been in the real estate business for 20 years. I spent a vast majority of my career in Houston on the services side, and then made the transition to Dallas in 2020 when the Crow family decided to resuscitate the office development arm of the family’s holdings. Crow has a long lineage with all of all types of development, but we had not had a dedicated vertical focused on office for a long time.


What is driving Crow Holdings’ interest in wood and mass timber buildings?

We’re looking to do things a little bit differently than the rest of the competition. We’re trying to be really thoughtful about the occupant experience. How can our buildings function differently? How can they perform differently? How can they look different aesthetically and architecturally? Being ground-up developers gives us an opportunity to be at the tip of the spear for what tenants want today and deliver that for them tomorrow.


How do you approach the use of wood?

We really want to accentuate wood, and we want to highlight that not only from the occupant’s perspective, but also from the general public’s perspective. That helps us from a marketing and placemaking standpoint. But it helps make sure that we can continue to communicate that our building is different. 


How did wood factor into the design of Southstone Yards?

We want to make sure that everything about the project is best in class, whether that’s location, indoor air quality, amenities, clear heights, vision lines, mechanicals, etc. And then we’ve got something that no one else has, which is a biophilic environment with wood that is aesthetically pleasing for occupants. So, from an experience standpoint, that gives us a really compelling value proposition to offer tenants. 

We’re also able to highlight the mass timber by making it visible through the glazing. If you’re going to develop a new Class A office building in any metro, you’re going to have a curtainwall system. It’s all about pulling in natural light. So that was the first thing we said to the design team: no punched window expression. We are a curtainwall; we are floor-to-ceiling glass. And oh, yeah, by the way, if we do that, and we have a wood building, we’re also highlighting the wood.


What difficulties have you faced?

We’re really fortunate that our building is located in Frisco, Texas, which has a very progressive building department. We were pleasantly surprised that Frisco was anticipating one of these buildings coming to market. They had already done their own studies. They had already traveled around the country and visited with other officials. So, we were fortunate in that regard. And as we continue to underwrite opportunities in other markets around the country, it’s always interesting to see those municipalities and how advanced their thinking is. Some are really advanced, adopting 2024 IBC. And some you have to start with square one.


Where do you see growth opportunities for mass timber?

There’s a lot of momentum. I think people are just trying to find the right application of the materials for the right asset class. It’s not just limited to office; we’ve got industrial buildings now that are using some mass timber end panels. I think there’s more and more to come, particularly as the market becomes more aware of it, as municipalities continue to up their education, and particularly as the mass timber manufacturer supply chain continues to develop capacities and capabilities.


How have biophilic design principles informed your development process?

Biophilic design is employed through a number of different strategies, but certainly wood is the chief one amongst them. Biophilic design contributes to increased workplace satisfaction; lower levels of stress; and increased concentration, which leads to better productivity, reduced absenteeism. There’s this cool thing now where employees have said, “Hey, I feel like my employer’s investing in my overall health and wellness, so thank you employer.” That creates a stickiness when it’s all about recruiting and retaining workers. That is really valuable for the culture of an organization. We’ve been studying these things and saying, “Hey, there’s something to this biophilic environment.” What better way to demonstrate that [connection to nature] than by way of wood?

PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment
Boleen at the PDX Terminal project. Photo Credit: Timberlab
The curiosity and earthly reward that comes from being part of the ‘how’ is why I choose construction. How do days, months, even years of discussions, setbacks, handshakes, personalities, frustrations, builders, materials, budgets and phone calls … how do I take these puzzle pieces and strategically assemble them into something groundbreaking?
Rose Boleen
Project Manager

Think Wood: So what makes Timberlab unique?

Rose Boleen: When you think of construction, you think of a general contractor or a subcontractor. And what makes Timberlab unique is that we have a general contractor background, but our mindset is really in innovating specifically mass timber, pre-construction, early design phase connections, and then fabricating these pieces to precise tolerances to then eventually install them. And so we’re a part of every single aspect of the mass timber building itself. By bringing together both the visionary and the technical, the engineering and the fabrication, Timberlab is putting more and more mass timber projects on the map—and it’s very exciting to be part of it.

How did you end up in the world of mass timber and what was your first mass timber project?

I joined Swinterton—the founder of Timberlab—through an internship and I moved out to Oregon for the summer. It was there that I got my first experience working on mass timber projects—the First Tech Federal Credit Union, the largest mass timber building in the U.S. at the time of being built. And that was Swinerton’s first stab at turnkey mass timber installation. And I was very eager in my career early on and I said, “I want to be in the field, I want to be rigging panels, I want to be hands-on labeling them and installing them.” So I was out there putting eye hooks into CLT panels and getting them rigged for the crane to set them into place. So that was my first experience with mass timber. 

It’s impressive to think how far Swinteron has come in the last six years, eventually forming a whole new division [Timberlab] of our company. And being one of the first 10 people to be a part of this group has been really special. I had no idea that’s where this would take me.

What does Timberlab offer as a distinct group of specialized timber excerpts?

We have a dedicated engineering department, virtual design department, and manufacturing department—and experts in each one of those areas for support that is specific to mass timber construction and design. I can reach out to get input on design details that may not have been fully engineered yet or if I need to do a different fabrication on it, I can troubleshoot and collaborate early in the process. This input is really helpful on projects, and I think having the right people embedded internally in our company really gives us an advantage when presenting the solutions to architects and clients. It’s very powerful to have all the knowledge we have in-house.

Sounds like you have a passion for mass timber—what drives that?

I love the positive impact mass timber can have on the tenants and occupants. I heard a really beautiful story that someone’s daughter worked in an office that was made out of mass timber—and this is post-pandemic, so they’re all going back to the office. She found that she actually loved going to the office more because it was a mass timber building and she felt excited to be in an environment that was welcoming and made her feel good. I think it’s exciting to hear, after people have been working from home for so long, that mass timber can help bring people back together in a beautiful space. I’m hoping to see more offices, public spaces, and even apartments incorporate the bright, welcoming environment that mass timber can provide. I like to hear that we’re truly making a positive impact on people’s everyday lives.

What are some challenges when it comes to mass timber construction and design, in your first-hand experience?

Weatherproofing and keeping the product dry are things that design teams need to keep in mind. Eventually, it would be great to see a lower-cost, fully weatherproof fastener that I can install in the rain and not have to worry about it getting wet and corroding. Availability, supply, and timelines can be a challenge, although those are improving. In the future, I think we’ll see more and more suppliers come onto the market and prices will be competitive. 

When it comes to sustainability, I think we still need to dive into how we can reduce emissions, especially in transporting mass timber products. Having more facilities across the country, closer to projects, could help with that. Training is also a gap. For the PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment, we have trained up to 40 different people on how to use these products. It helps increase the adoption of mass timber as more and more folks share their knowledge.

PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment

  • PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment | Project and Rendering Credit: ZGF Architects
  • PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment | Project and Rendering Credit: ZGF Architects
  • PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment | Project and Rendering Credit: ZGF Architects
  • PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment | Photo Credit: Tmberlab

Can you share a little bit more about the PDX Terminal Core Redevelopment and its impressive mass timber roof design?

The mass timber roof design is impressive and many are in awe that we could do an 80-foot long-span with glulam beams. We are frequently asked, why isn’t this steel? Why would you choose wood? I love the response from KPFF, the engineer of record: We looked at the correlation and the strength property of steel versus wood, and these glulam beams actually perform better than steel in this particular case. It’s also a great story from a local perspective. All the mass timber was sourced from a diverse array of local landowners and Pacific Northwest tribes across the region within a 600-mile radius. It really pays homage to Oregon’s rich natural beauty while also highlighting the growing innovation in the sector.

Is there anything you touched or installed on that project? Did you go and try to screw in an eye hook or anything?

I may have not necessarily installed anything, but I did write my name on top of a lot of beams!

Over your past six years working in mass timber construction, what has been one of your proudest moments?

I’m really proud of being able to educate others about this innovative sustainable building product. As a product, mass timber itself is pretty young, and I’m also pretty young—but I’ve had the incredible opportunity to gain a lot of knowledge. And it’s kind of a rare situation to be in at my age and a privilege—especially in construction, a field that’s so rooted in specialized knowledge. I have a seat at the table as a mass timber expert, and that’s exciting.

Think Wood: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the mission of the Capital Area Development Authority (CADA)?

Renee Funston: I’m a development manager with Sacramento’s CADA—it’s a joint powers authority between the state of California and the city of Sacramento and is specifically here to implement the housing and support the retail goals of the Capitol Area Plan. We were founded in 1978 to essentially be the state property manager for residential and commercial properties around the capitol. CADA is a pretty unique public agency—we still get tax increment financing, and so that’s a portion of the tax dollars within our actual redevelopment area. We then reinvest that back into the surrounding neighborhoods. 

A big part of our mission is to help create a neighborhood for all, including all household types and incomes. CADA is mandated to preserve a quarter of its housing stock (units that CADA manages or builds) as affordable units. 


We understand a recent CADA-supported affordable housing project used mass timber. Can you tell us about that project?

Yes, one of our most recent projects, Sonrisa (1322 O Street), is a five-story mass timber building using cross-laminated timber (CLT). It consists of 58 micro-unit apartments with 1,300 square feet of ground-floor community space. All of the units are affordable at low- and very low-income levels. It is the first to be completed under Governor Newsom’s Executive Order N-06-19 for Affordable Housing Development. That order specifically calls for increased use of renewable sustainable construction methods such as modular mass timber construction. 

  • Photo Credit: Kurtis Ostrom Photography
  • Photo Credit: John Swain Photography
  • Photo Credit: John Swain Photography
  • Photo Credit: John Swain Photography

What are some of the benefits you found from using mass timber?

It will provide beautiful, warm environments and will help boost the ceiling height to over nine feet in the units and 12 feet on the ground floor. That is a real plus, especially when building micro suites, as it gives more light and a greater sense of openness, contributing to a sense of well-being. We will also be able to take advantage of modular prefab construction, so we can frame and get the structure up a lot quicker. It’s well-suited to smaller urban infills. And then of course the sustainable properties associated with mass timber make it a no-brainer.


Why is it important to consider sustainability, biophilic design and using materials like exposed wood, in an affordable housing project?

I think with any project, not just affordable housing, it is important to consider these things. At the same time, our organization is long-term mission-driven, maybe more than a traditional developer. So we go above and beyond for a lot of these types of things, knowing that we are building affordable housing as part of a long-term sustainable development strategy. With mass timber, we can sequester carbon into this solid form and as a building material it’s going to have a lot more longevity—you could potentially even use those CLT panels for another project in the future if we think in terms of design for disassembly and re-use. That’s something that we should all be striving for. Beyond this, we are doing things like not including parking but instead making sure there’s excellent walkability and access to transit. 


As a public agency, do you see CADA as needing to take a leadership role to showcase innovations to the wider industry, such as the case of using mass timber?

Absolutely. And I think that’s certainly already happening in Sacramento. The Sonrisa is a great example and so we’re happy to share our findings and knowledge. We’re sharing everything from design details and pro forma to acoustical studies. These projects can help everyone in the industry as we learn together and fine-tune our best practices.


What are some of the learnings you can share when it comes to mass timber and affordable housing?

I think generally working together really closely early on a mass timber project is important. There are many things that are happening at once and you don’t always identify what pieces are missing from the drawings until you are actually working with your sub-consultants. As much as possible, you want to have that really close upfront coordination, checking everything out, that everyone is on the same page and has thought through what things potentially could go wrong. Giving close attention to delivery schedules of mass timber panels is also key. For the Sonrisa project, it took three days for the truckload deliveries to arrive and we had to figure things out between the delivery schedule and when people are working, factoring in weekends and holidays. 


Any last words or advice to other industry professionals or public agencies looking to take on a mass timber project? 

Innovation can be overwhelming and a little scary. It’s understandable that developers are looking for certainty. I definitely recommend reaching out to the growing community of mass timber experts in the field. Developing a close collaborative, trusting, working relationship between the owner, architect, and contractor can really make a difference when it comes to mass timber projects. You can never go wrong reaching out to other successful design teams. I would certainly recommend connecting with others in your region who have successfully completed mass timber projects.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aureus Earth’s Leadership Team

Wil Srubar, PhD Founder and Managing Director | Salmeron Barnes Founder and Managing Director | Adam Orens Founder and Managing Director | Michele Grieshaber, PhD Strategic Advisor


Think Wood: As an organization, what is Aureus Earth? How do you answer that question for those who are new to carbon accounting and financial solutions?

Aureus Earth Leadership Team: Aureus Earth monetizes the built environment’s ability to combat climate change. Our central focus and mission are to decarbonize the construction industry by providing financial incentives to builders and developers, encouraging them to use carbon-storing materials, like mass timber, in non-residential and multifamily buildings. Aureus Earth quantifies and values the carbon stored in the building project, then issues carbon offsets on the basis of the amount of biogenic carbon stored in the building. The carbon offsets can be monetized and sold to help reduce the cost of building with mass timber. 

What kind of team did you need to develop this new way of quantifying carbon storage?

We certainly have a unique team with a robust set of expertise spanning alternative construction materials, finance, and strategy. Together, we’ve worked on a model that we think is a win-win for those who want to build with greener materials and for those who wish to purchase carbon offsets that are demonstrably transparent, high quality, and durable. 

So, are you creating a new carbon market?

We are not a carbon market, but we do work with carbon marketplaces and exchanges to essentially sell offsets that are generated from the projects we support. We do that by financially incentivizing the choice of climate-positive materials and verifying and monetizing the carbon stored in the mass timber elements.  

Who would buy these carbon offsets?

They can include individuals, corporations, or other organizations that wish to offset their current or past carbon emissions through voluntary action—and in some instances, companies are legally mandated to offset their emissions.

How will this work for architects, developers and other building professionals? What are the steps to issue the carbon offsets for a mass timber building?

Aureus Earth issues carbon offsets on the basis of biogenic carbon stored in a mass timber building. The first step is carbon storage calculations. We quantify how much carbon will be stored through the use of mass timber used in structural elements—which are unlikely to be altered for the duration of the building’s lifetime—as we want to avoid leakage. The stored carbon is then converted into carbon offset equivalents based on our Mass Timber Building Protocol (MTBP). Aureus Earth matches these carbon offsets with potential buyers of carbon offsets and provides the proceeds to the building owner. 

So can a developer or owner get a cash rebate for choosing a carbon-storing material like wood?

Aureus Earth helps builders and developers offset the green premium associated with sustainable building materials, such as mass timber. The offsets we issue can be retained by the building owner or sold on a carbon market. In the latter case, the builder essentially gets a “cash rebate” for choosing to use a carbon-storing material like wood. 

You completed a pilot of the program with the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business—providing carbon offsets for the newly completed Founders Hall mass timber building as a proof of concept. Can you elaborate on that project?

In the UW Foster School project, Aureus Earth demonstrated how to use a sound and vetted scientific method to figure out the amount of carbon stored in a building and do what we call an end-to-end transaction. We demonstrated a few novel concepts with this pilot. First, we demonstrated that science-based methods can be used to calculate the amount of biogenic carbon stored in mass timber for a specified—and guaranteed—period of time. Offsets were issued on this basis, taking that amount of carbon stored and then subtracting emissions from harvesting, manufacturing and transporting the timber. Second, the carbon in the building can be considered as physical property, like a mineral or wind right. So, we worked with a premier title company to create title and access rights to the carbon that were recorded with county authorities and could serve as the basis for transferring the asset to another party. And third, the process was audited by a well-recognized audit firm to verify the whole process.

Why are you starting with mass timber buildings and why are they a good choice for this incentive program?

Aureus Earth prioritizes new construction methods and practices that can turn buildings into a positive force to reverse climate change. Mass timber has the potential to do just that by cutting emissions from cement and steel production. And buildings constructed with mass timber can be thought of as carbon sinks that hold onto carbon for the lifetime of the building and beyond. When it’s time to take the building down, the reuse of mass timber elements is likely to be attractive in the future, creating a secondary market for the mass timber and keeping it out of landfills.

Are there minimum standards a mass timber building must meet to be part of the program?

To qualify, a project must use mass timber such as CLT or glulam and be a commercial nonresidential or multifamily residential building of over 20,000 square feet. 

How much does this service or process cost? Can it offer savings in the long run?

Building owners do not pay to work with Aureus Earth, instead, they receive revenue for the carbon offsets that represent the amount of carbon stored in their building project. One great benefit of this program is it can reduce the green premium sometimes associated with using more materials that store carbon. As the market for high-quality carbon removal offsets grows, the amount of the green premium that the offsetting revenue can address will improve even more. Today, we’ve found that even a small percentage of the cost is enough to provide building owners with a reason to consider climate-positive materials, like mass timber.

How does this program compare to other green building programs? Will it be something a building owner or company can promote as part of its commitment to fighting climate change?

We believe there is a market for buildings that store carbon and we’re looking at developing programmatic recognition as we scale. In the meantime, buildings that work with Aureus Earth can get the dual benefit—the offsetting revenue from working with Aureus Earth and the ability to apply for LEED or BREEAM certification as well. The difference is in the Aureus Earth case they will get paid. For the other certifications, they must pay a fee.

Most folks in the building industry agree we need to tackle climate change—but why are carbon-storing incentives just as critical as energy and operational efficiency?

Think of it this way—there are estimates indicating that the equivalent of a New York City will be added to the planet every 35 days for the next 40 years. That equates to at least 600 billion square feet of new buildings every decade or more. Without intervention, without these types of incentives and carbon-storing materials, conventional construction will eat up nearly two-thirds of the remaining global carbon budget alone—if we are to meet the 1.5 degrees Celsius target limit. 

Tackling climate change can be overwhelming, especially for the upcoming generation of professionals. Any words of advice?

AE Team Member Michele Grieshaber: As a researcher and university lecturer, I’ve been asked this exact question. It can be overwhelming hearing bad news about the climate, especially as a young person—and it might sometimes be hard to feel hopeful. First of all, I will say this, and I cannot remember where I read this, so it’s not my original idea: to address climate change we are looking for a silver buckshot, not a silver bullet. In the case of Aureus Earth, we are tackling one important component and that’s improving the amount of carbon stored in our buildings. Others are looking at major boosts to energy efficiency or alternative fuel sources. And outside the building industry, efforts are being made as well. I believe we can find some solace in the cumulative effect of many different solutions.

What is the future outlook for Aureus Earth?

Aureus Earth wants to move beyond the carbon offset to the carbon asset. We are currently exploring how we can transform biogenic carbon stored in mass timber construction into a real, transferable, and depreciable asset. In the next decade, we believe real-estate-backed, climate-positive financial instruments will become the next “mineral rights.”

Interested in sustainable building solutions for your next project?

Founders Hall
Photo Credit: Tim Griffth
View project
To address climate change we are looking for a silver buckshot, not a silver bullet. We are tackling one important component—improving the amount of carbon stored in our buildings…I believe we can find some solace in the cumulative effect of many different solutions.
Michele Grieshaber, PHD
Strategic Advisor | Aureus Earth

Founders Hall

A Model of Climate-Smart Design

With the climate crisis weighing heavy on the minds of college students, post-secondary institutions are increasingly looking for ways to lower the carbon emissions of their campuses while also supporting student and faculty well-being.

Founders Hall
Photo Credit: Tim Griffth
View project
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