How a Timberlab Project Manager Developed Her Mass Timber Expertise

Rose Boleen is a project manager at Timberlab—a design-build fabrication company founded by the 135-year-old San Francisco-based company Swinerton. The construction juggernaut’s sister company is taking on timber construction with the spirit of a start-up, offering full-service turnkey design-build timber installs, custom fabrication and supply of mass timber solutions, procurement, and digital construction, as well as acting as a research and development partner doing hands-on testing. Boleen has been with the firm since the beginning, taking on some of the most notable mass timber projects in the country. Those projects range from an undulating mass plywood and glulam canopy roof at Oregon’s largest airport to an impressive 35,000-square-foot CLT and glulam-built academic hub among Santa Cruz’s giant redwoods. 

She has played a key role in Swinerton’s launch of its rapidly successful mass timber division and was recently recognized as one of Constructive Dive’s Construction Champions. Think Wood sat down with Boleen to talk about her rapid rise as a mass timber expert over the past six years and what makes Timberlab unique.

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.

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