How Two Iowa Developers are Combining Affordability, Sustainability, and Mass Timber

Scott and Molly Cutler are expanding the use of mass timber in the Greater Des Moines area. After building Junction Lofts, a three-story mixed-use building that they believe to be the first mass timber residential structure in Iowa, the husband-and-wife development team recently broke ground on Star Lofts, a mixed-use building with CLT decking and glulam columns and beams that has been designed to achieve Zero Carbon Certification, the first in Iowa to achieve that designation.

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.

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