Matt Driscoll

Tacoma's Brewery Blocks development on ground floor of greener, faster building movement

One floor every eight days. That’s fast.

By September, four new stories will sit atop a historic former Hunt Mottet warehouse space on Commerce Street in Tacoma’s Brewery District.

When it opens, the building — which is part of Horizon Partners Northwest’s expansive Brewery Blocks development project —will be home to 49 new apartments and over 10,000 square feet of commercial space.

It also will be the tallest building in the state to utilize cross-laminated timber (CLT), according to Horizon President Michael Bartlett and Vice President of Construction Troy Spurlock.

Right here in Tacoma.

That’s pretty cool — for a number of reasons.

First, the use of CLT – in the form of prefabricated panels that will serve as the floor and ceiling for each of the additional stories — means the development of the historic building will have a much smaller carbon footprint than conventional construction.

And when it comes to the “wow factor,” the use of CLT panels will mean the building will go up over the coming weeks at breakneck speed.

“This hasn’t been done in the state of Washington, this type of construction or the height,’ Spurlock explained recently. “It’s taken us three days to erect a floor of panels, versus two full weeks and probably a 20 man crew.”

From a developer’s standpoint, the appeal of CLT panels seems obvious — at least once you get past the initial cost and a fear of the unknown.

The panels are prefabricated at a factory in Montana, essentially cross stacked boards glued and pressed together. They’re not cheap, but they’re strong, and they save a significant amount of time and labor once construction starts, according to Spurlock.

“Traditionally, this building would take you at least a year,” Spurlock said of the redevelopment of the old warehouse at 2110 Commerce Street, which kicked off the Brewery Blocks development this week.

All told, Spurlock predicted the use of CLT will shave four months off the redevelopment of the building.

“We would add another 12 to 14 weeks to the erection of the building, and then you’d have to finish ceiling,” he said.

On a broader level, the real story is the environmental upside and potential economic impacts of the expanded use of CLT.

While CLT has been utilized in construction for some time in Europe, its use in the United States is relatively rare.

The environmental benefits of CLT are well documented. Building with CLT is sustainable, especially since it can utilize smaller or even dead or diseased trees. It also carries a much smaller carbon footprint, since trees store carbon while they’re growing and the production of CLT panels is much cleaner than steel and concrete.

“It’s a carbon sink. It stores carbon,” Bartlett explained of CLT. “The trees take carbon out of the air, and they put oxygen out. And then that carbon is in the wood — as opposed to steel and concrete, which take a huge amount of carbon being spewed into the air to manufacture, and a lot of energy.”

Bartlett and plenty of others, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have said that an expanded use of CLT could revitalize parts of Washington’s timber industry.

“Demand for Washington’s timber industry has been in decline for decades, impacting many of our rural communities. The manufacturing of cross-laminated timber has the potential to strengthen local economies and grow jobs.” Inslee said during a visit to Jefferson Elementary School in the Mount Vernon School District last year.

The elementary school is one of five schools in the state where CLT was used to build new classrooms, part of a pilot project included in Washington’s 2016 capital budget.

Bartlett agrees.

“There’s a lot of momentum for using CLT,” he said. “This industry has a real potential to revitalize rural lumber in the Northwest. Instead of shipping logs to China, there’s an ability to … put the manufacturing in areas that haven’t really grown.”

To see that outcome realized, it will take a lot more than one Tacoma development willing to take the CLT plunge. This is just a start.

Still, it’s nice to see Tacoma getting in on the ground floor.

“The construction development industry is very slow to change. We’re building buildings pretty much the way we did for the last 100 years,” Bartlett said. “People just aren’t thinking about it right now.

“But this is not just this fleeting wave.”

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