Housing the Future with Mass Timber

In the relatively young world of mass timber, Ted Panton is an experienced veteran. The principal at Seattle-based GGLO first developed a hybrid light-frame and cross-laminated timber multi-dwelling module seven years ago as a solution to provide low-carbon-footprint, biophilic housing in dense urban environments. 

More recently, Panton led the design and permitting for Gardens District, a large mixed-use residential structure slated for Woodinville, Washington, that was projected to be the tallest dowel-laminated mass timber residential building in North America before it was shelved in late 2023 amid reconfiguration of the development team. The project is currently being reconceived with potential for an expanded scope for mass timber housing. Through extensive costing and third-party testing, the project represents a scalable, replicable housing paradigm that will offer key takeaways for other teams who design for this project type.

GGLO went on to design a two-story clubhouse in Bothell, Washington, for multifamily developer AvalonBay Communities, using glulam columns and beams and a CLT roof to create a beautiful amenity space with exposed wood. GGLO collaborated with Vida Design on interior design and Timberlab for fabrication.

Panton plans vertical mixed-use programs and is a strong advocate for design solutions centered on livability and sustainable urbanism. He has championed the use of wood structural systems across a spectrum of infill housing typologies, including the integration of heavy timber and mass timber components. Panton spoke with Think Wood about opportunities to scale up the use of mass timber and working collaboratively to design more sustainable cities.

Gardens District
Render Credit: GGLO
Avalon Bothell Commons Clubhouse
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab

Think Wood: How did you get your start in mass timber?

Ted Panton: Going back to 2015 I had the opportunity of working with interns from the University of Oregon. They were passionate about mass timber, and their enthusiasm was contagious. I started to realize the potential for this very likable, innovative engineered material to impact the design and the future of housing. There were also groundbreaking early adopters in the development community, like Jeff Spiritos, who were addressing the needs of dense infill housing with the product. With all this as inspiration, I began exploring opportunities and strategies for implementing it in a market rate setting here in Seattle, with a series of smaller projects where we applied its use. At that point I was hooked.

What do you find most exciting about mass timber today?

It presents an impetus for design. Much like steel and concrete gave rise to the modern movement in the late 19th century, mass timber has its own unique properties that unlock new potential for architects and engineers here in the 21st century. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it can redefine the built environment the way the modern movement did as well. You’re starting with this slab-like, high-performing structural system that, by its nature, starts to impact and define the overall project. And it not only shapes the project, but it responds to the program differently, providing opportunities for rich immersive interiors.

It also shapes the team itself. We’ve been fortunate enough to have really great clients and project partners that have tracked our own involvement in mass timber, like Coughlin Porter Lundeen, who are the structural engineers for the Gardens District and the AvalonBay project. Acoustic engineers, envelope consultants, it takes everyone’s attention and focus. That’s very exciting to me, as there’s a core element to rally around as a team, and everyone has that North Star to focus on as you get deeper and deeper into the project.

Avalon Bothell Commons Clubhouse
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab

Are there benefits for using mass timber when it comes to financing these projects, or does financing just work the traditional way?

The particulars of financing varies from client to client. That said, market-rate housing is capital-intensive, so finding opportunities for mass timber means you’re needing to weave it into the existing community of consultants, vendors, contractors. So the more flexible we can be with solutions, the more they’re compatible with other systems and methods of delivery.

With the cost challenges of delivering housing, I find a more incremental approach can be viable. It can be integrated at a pretty large scale if it’s done through calibrated tweaks versus reinventing the wheel. For example, why not frame a mass timber lid on the top floor of any midrise? Acoustic issues and construction sequencing are far less of an issue with that approach, and it will transform these top-floor units into something more livable and marketable than it would be otherwise. A typical 5-story, 200-unit project might have a floor plate of 40,000 sq. ft.; that’s a decent amount of mass timber comprising that lid.

Avalon Bothell Commons Clubhouse
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab

How did you get your start in low-carbon design? How does that inspire your firm, and what role does mass timber play in that?

When I first got involved in mass timber, biogenic carbon [the carbon stored in a wood product over its lifetime] was a compelling aspect of the story. I wasn’t aware of the fact that the more mass timber you use, the more carbon you’re sequestering. It’s an interesting proposition and it takes a while to wrap your mind around that. It presents unique opportunities for designers as well. Becoming familiar with the source of wood fiber and the practices associated with its production really brings the narrative to life.

While we pursue deep sustainability wherever possible, we also understand that mass timber suppliers have constraints. FSC is obviously preferable, but it isn’t always available in every product and in every iteration. So we look to the vendor to how they’re approaching things. We’ll recommend certain suppliers because we know that their product has a story to it, whether it’s the quality of the fiber, their forest management practices, or their relationship to their communities. So there’s value there that is perhaps difficult to quantify to the level of a metric like FSC.

What is the result of having mass timber in terms of the occupants and selling it to the general public?

Using our partition-supported DLT project Gardens District as an example, a $0.05-0.10/ft bump in rent covers the whole enterprise of introducing a mass timber floor system into the project. We feel this is a great value-add from a tenant’s perspective, and why mass timber has a real application, particularly with renters of choice, such as a move-down scenario or in higher-end product. We’re also worked with affordable housing providers who have seen its potential in componentizing repetitive unit framing.

Are the advantages self-evident to potential tenants, or do you think more education is needed for people who may not know about mass timber?

Sustainability metrics have been a crucial element for the industry overall, yet from a tenant’s perspective there can be a disconnect as to their value. The great thing about mass timber is that it’s a visible expression of sustainability that tenants can recognize and benefit from. That is something that our marketing consultants have shared with us; that this visible expression of sustainability can be a differentiator for renters, particularly in a tight and competitive market.

Avalon Bothell Commons Clubhouse
Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab

What should be the common goals of the design and construction industry when it comes to mass timber moving forward?

The goal should be delivering mass timber at scale. There’s a lot of great projects that are unique and inspiring. But for it to scale up, it will require some level of adoption within the broader vending and consulting communities. That is a big part of what we’re doing: trying to make mass timber more accessible. The floor assembly we third-party tested for the Gardens District is a good example. Now that we’ve gone through that process, we have a floor assembly for DLT that anyone can use and achieve the same cost-effective results.

What other areas of innovation within GGLO are you most excited about?

We’re all about housing the future. The future of cities is a profound undertaking and architects, consulting teams, developers, and contractors all have a vital role to play. As a firm we contribute to this vision in a variety of settings, whether it’s lower density scenarios or higher-density mixed-use environments. The innovation we pursue in the office, whether it’s embracing computational tools or adoption of progressive new systems like mass timber, is all in service of that goal.

It’s also worth noting, housing is not the shiny object that some other product types are. It is essential in the growth of cities, yet highly constrained budgetarily. I think people are seeing just how important it is to solve this puzzle when so many communities are struggling with housing attainability and inventory. Seattle alone, for example, will need over 112,000 new units over the next 20 years to keep pace with growth, and that is a conservative estimate that doesn’t take current deficits into account. With that as context, innovation in our firm is done in service of accomplishing these density goals and growing sustainable cities. In the end, supporting the growth of cities is the greatest sustainability measure that we can take as a profession.

Do you have any advice to other practitioners that are now getting into mass timber?

Mass timber has this broad energy and appeal that activates design on a number of levels. It has tectonic qualities, biophilic qualities, regenerative qualities. I encourage practitioners to absorb as much information as they can, then embrace it on their own terms. There are amazing resources like WoodWorks and the TallWood Design Institute, and a host of built projects to learn from.

I would also recommend connecting with structural engineers. They will be your co-equal in the design effort. There are so many great structural consultants, and many, like DCI, have made really deep commitments to mass timber. Project solutions require close collaboration with structural, far more so than with other systems.

Looking ahead, I anticipate more tangible results coming out of this next generation, a 2.0 version of mass timber where it is a legitimate option in most project settings. The 1.0 version was the inspiration and the “why.” I think the 2.0 version of mass timber is all going to be about market penetration and scale, and as a result, more access to mass timber’s appeal by the community at large. There’s going to be some really interesting results.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Avalon Bothell Commons Clubhouse

  • Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab
  • Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab
  • Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab
  • Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab
  • Photo Credit: Benjamin Benschneider | Courtesy of Timberlab
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