Mass Timber, Multi-Family

Wessex Woods

Affordable Housing Inspires New Possibilities in Wood Construction

Maine-based nonprofit developer Avesta Housing has been building affordable multi-family homes for almost 50 years. With 100 properties, 2,700 apartments and two assisted-living facilities under their belt, more than 3,000 households remain on their waiting list for affordable housing.

In partnership with architect CWS Architects and general contractor Zachau Construction, Avesta is nearing completion on it’s latest project: Wessex Woods – a four-story, 40-unit affordable senior housing development in Portland, Maine’s Nason’s Corner neighborhood.

What typically would have been light-frame construction with a CMU core, Wessex Woods is now the first building in Maine to feature stairwells and an elevator shaft constructed from CLT. While mass timber was not part of the original design, a $700,000 budget overage prompted the team to think differently about structural solutions. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) was a key part of the answer.

Cut costs. Not corners.

“CLT was not initially in our consciousness,” said Greg Payne, development officer at Avesta Housing. “But as we dug into the idea, we discovered that it would save us time and money.”

By using mass timber, the team reduced the shaft’s expected three-week construction time to one day, cutting their budget by $75,000, while realizing additional cost savings related to reduced labor, heating and tenting requirements.  

“Traditionally it’s always been CMU (concrete masonry unit) for elevators and stairs,” said Ben Walter, president at CWS Architects. “But we were able to demonstrate that a new material, and a different set of details to install it, fit nicely here.”

Drew Wing, chief operating officer at Zachau Construction, witnessed the project’s time-saving benefits of CLT and wood panel construction first-hand. “In addition to erecting stair towers and elevator shafts in a day, it also allowed the framing of the building to happen concurrently; something we could not have done with masonry,” said Wing. “We also were able to easily lift and crane the panelized components into place, saving an enormous amount of time on the project schedule overall.”

Dream CLTeam. As the first CLT project of its kind in Maine, the Wessex Woods project team found value in collaboration and creativity early in the design phase. "I'd emphasize the value of the process,” said Wing. "We were willing to look at different scenarios to achieve the same goals."
The design team, construction manager and owner all worked together. That's what allowed CLT to happen in this fashion; and together we helped advance building science in Maine.
Drew Wing
Chief Operating Officer
Zachau Construction

The Natural Choice

Beyond cost savings, sustainability gains also made the case for wood, for both the framing and CLT.

“We could build with other materials, but we have comfort in knowing that we’re sequestering carbon, and it’s a natural [sustainable] material,” the project architect shared. “We basically design as close to Passive House standards as we can on every project because long-term sustainability and operating costs are both important. It becomes a home that people are going to do well in.”

“We want to make sure that people have quality homes and feel good about where they live,” continued development officer Payne. “While we’re doing that, we also want to make sure that the buildings are energy-efficient and help us better address climate change. And that’s what’s happening here.”

Along with CLT in the elevator and stairs, Wessex Woods features light wood framing throughout, including plated roof and floor trusses, wood-panelized walls and load-bearing corridors. Smart home amenities across Avesta’s senior housing projects include a community room with wifi, on-site laundry facilities (with text alerts when your wash is finished), and a telemedicine room where residents can speak virtually with healthcare providers. The development site contains eight contiguous lots located in a walkable area with proximity to services and amenities, making it a prime location for housing. The site also is located close to a bus stop on the extensive Portland public transportation system, connecting residents with the downtown area and adjoining communities. 

Bark to the Future

Due to code requirements, Wessex Woods does not expose its underlying wood structure in the final design, but the team is looking to incorporate this element in future projects. 

Says Walter, “We’ve demonstrated that we can make CLT work in Maine. We’re a wood-producing state and are advocating for Maine produced CLT to serve the entire eastern seaboard.  There’s a lot of interest in having the national codes expand to provide more opportunities for CLT here.”

Learn more about Avesta's vision for affordable housing in this Q+A with Greg Payne, Development Officer.

Project Details

  • Architect
    CWS Architects
  • Developer
    Avesta Housing
  • Construction
    Zachau Construction
  • Location
    Portland, ME
  • Date Completed
    Fall 2020
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