Interview

Developing a Kit of Parts for Mass Timber Projects

Craig Curtis has spent his career on the cutting edge of building technology. He spent 30 years at Miller Hull, where he was on the design team for Seattle’s Bullitt Center, a mass timber commercial office building that was the first in the world to meet the stringent requirements of the Living Building Challenge. He spent five years at Katerra, where he was architect of record for the Catalyst building (with Michael Green Architecture) in Spokane, Washington, and he spearheaded the development of the Katerra CLT factory in Spokane Valley.

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.

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