Think Wood: Welcome Thomas and Jason. It’s exciting to see the 80 M Street project underway. What prompted your foray into mass timber construction?
Thomas Corrado: At Hickok Cole we’re always trying to look ahead to see what’s coming, and obviously mass timber was one of those things that caught our eye. Hickok Cole has a research-based program called iLab where staff bring new ideas to the table. Many of those ideas are funded by the office to help develop our knowledge base and better position our firm in the market. Under that program we started looking into mass timber. We spent a couple of years getting our feet under us and learning everything we could. We even partnered with a contractor and a structural engineer to develop a mass timber prototype. Then we started talking to our clients about timber, and worked to educate our network about the product. Today, we believe in it and we think it’s how we should be building in the future.
TW: As DC’s first mass timber commercial building, how did you navigate the code approval process with city officials?
Jason Wright: Washington, D.C. is not so progressive on its building code adoption process, but we are one of the most forward-thinking cities in terms of energy codes and sustainability. So there’s kind of this paradox in the building industry here. The Mayor has a desire to see sustainable construction and the building department was interested in mass timber and asked us to bring them a project. A lot of people don’t understand how new forest growth sequesters more carbon, and how sustainable cutting and regrowing by the timber industry actually sequesters more carbon than old growth forests. You also hear about former paper industries that are switching to timber production, which is helping revitalize these local factories and jobs. Being able to tell those stories helped us push this project forward with the zoning administrators.
TW: Despite the traditional drive for building density, the 80 M Street overbuild will have fewer floors and higher-than-average vertical depth. What drove this design decision?
JW: Columbia recognized the increased marketability of having 16 feet floor-to-floor with mass timber instead of 9.5 feet floor-to-floor with concrete. You can find that space anywhere in DC, so this design created a unique asset.
TC: The existing structure also wasn’t structurally able to handle the weight. In order to put that much density onto the top of that building, we would have had to beef up the existing structure below, and it would have been extremely expensive and extremely disruptive to the tenants. We knew timber was lighter than the concrete and was going to be equivalent to steel.
TW: How did biophilic principles play into the design?
TC: That’s something that we’re always trying to build into our design. I know it’s not quantifiable all the time, but it’s certainly a quality that we feel is important. For 80 M Street we had the benefit of height so we were able to get a lot more natural light into these floors, in addition to terraces. And obviously, timber is doing a lot of the heavy lifting there. I mean, just the sheer nature of the exposed timber structure is going to completely change the aesthetics.
JW: A Columbia Property Trust team member sent me a picture of the Jackson Hole airport (that’s all timber) with the note: “Who wouldn’t want to work here?!” Think about how much better you feel in those types of environments. As Tom said, they’re often hard to quantify, but when you’re in those spaces you just feel better. That led us to expose the timber as much as we could. When you go over five floors, you have to cover 20% of the timber, so this was one of our negotiations with the District. Because we’re building on top of a concrete structure, we’re really only constructing a three-story building, so we incorporated IVC along with some provisions of type IVB construction on top of type IA, and were able to get approval. You have to fight for those types of things because if we had to cover up the timber, we would have lost that market value.
TW: Now that your first mass timber project is underway, are you considering other wood construction projects?
TC: We are at a point where we are having a discussion about timber from the get-go. We see the potential and we are comfortable having the conversation. As more [timber projects] get done, it will show the owners a clear path from design to shovel in the ground. We’re going to see more of it delivered in all of our markets.
The anticipated completion date for 80 M Street is mid-2022.
Read more about Hickok Cole’s mass timber research at https://hickokcole.com/ilab-research/mass-timber/.