Wood is Leveling Up to Combat America’s Housing Crunch

The surge of urban populations is an all-too-familiar topic in the construction industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. are attracting more than 10,000 new inhabitants each year. In fact, the average American city sees population increases of 5-7% per year.

Unsurprisingly, these same cities face dwindling supplies of affordable housing. To make room for new residents, a growing number of planners and developers are turning to overbuild and infill development to make the most of available space. With recent surges in this building trend, wood is leveling up to take existing projects further north.

A rendering of a wood construction building with people walking in front of it.

First, let’s define:

Overbuild ​is a technique used to add extra stories on top of an existing building, maximizing development area-per-square-foot. Overbuilds often use as much of an existing building as possible adding extra support as needed. Since limited demolition is required, overbuild projects generally have quicker turnaround than new construction.

Infill ​is the development of vacant lots surrounded by existing buildings, converting once-dormant land into a vibrant residential or commercial structure.Because of their location, infills have easy access to existing public infrastructure– a cost savings for developers.

Three reasons why wood is ideal for vertical expansions:

  1. It’s lightweight.​ Wood’s light weight makes it a natural choice for overbuild designs, whether mass timber or light-frame construction. In addition to helping maintain a building’s original architecture or design, wood’s light construction footprint may allow tenants to remain in an existing building during construction, as opposed to evacuating while internal columns are strengthened to support heavier materials. With 20 percent of the density of concrete, timber also proves advantageous when building on sites with a poor foundation material. As with7overbuilds, wood’s lightweight nature is one of several differentiators that make it optimal for infills. Wood tends to use less construction equipment than other building materials, therefore facilitating infill projects in tight, complex urban spaces.
  2. It’s cost-friendly.​ Opting for an overbuild can offer cost benefits, with additional savings by using mass timber construction. When wood and mass-timber products are prefabricated and delivered ready for installation, construction time, equipment needs and on-site labor costs may be reduced. In addition, wood is one of the most cost-friendly building materials, saving builders 20 percent in some cases. In many cities, infill real estate is costly, so wood’s comparative10cost advantage also helps ensure a project’s overall financial health. In many cases, building five-six stories using wood is the only way an infill project is financially viable.
  3. It’s eco-friendly​. In addition to performance and cost benefits, wood’s lower carbon footprint offers an environmental gain to America’s housing crisis. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, buildings account for 39 percent of America’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions. Wood is the only building material made from a renewable resource, and its ability to capture and store carbon differentiates it from competing materials like concrete and steel. Analysts estimate that the construction of timber buildings for new urban dwellers could store up to 680 million tons of carbon a year, with these carbon benefits lasting throughout the building’s lifespan. A recent mass timber expansion of an15existing building in London removed over 1,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. The project, which added 50,000-square-feet of new office space, took just eight weeks to complete.
80 M Street

Show and Tell

To differentiate a project in D.C.’s crowded commercial office-space market, Hickok Cole and Arup chose wood to design a 100,000-sf mass timber vertical extension of an existing seven-story building.

The overbuild will add two floors of office space with 17-foot-high ceilings. “​The D.C. market is glutted with office space, and [developer] ​ColumbiaProperty Trust believes that using mass timber could be a differentiator for quicker leasing and higher rents,” says Lauren Wingo, Arup’s Senior Structural Engineer. ​

Proposed mass timber building section rendering
metro 280

As part of New Haven’s downtown city improvements, a “dilapidated” parking garage ​will be majorly renovated​, including overbuild construction.

​Greg Wies & Gardner Architects​, in partnership with ​Metro Star Properties​, will lead this restoration and adaptive re-use endeavor, complete with high-end residential mixed with ground level commercial.

A rendering of a wood construction building with people walking in front of it.

Keep looking up.

As urban populations continue to prosper, overbuilds and infills are sure to be equally burgeoning building trends. When new projects call for upward mobility, wood is a smart choice for meeting this demand with strength, versatility, shorter construction times, lower costs and smaller carbon footprints.

Onward and upward!

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