Material of Choice

Across North America, wood is being rediscovered as a cost-effective, versatile and sustainable material for mixed-use construction. After a prolonged emphasis on steel and concrete for buildings other than homes, wood is increasingly being used in mid-rise residential, office and mixed-used projects. This transition is largely due to advances in building science and technology, new building systems and products that have been developed for use in a wider range of buildings.

Whether wood is chosen for its efficiency, versatility or low carbon footprint, its growing use in nonresidential and multifamily construction can be attributed in part to building codes that can be attributed in part to a growing awareness of the large heights and areas afforded to wood buildings, as well as demand to maximize the size of wood mixed-used structures in order to capitalize on the affordability aspect. The International Building Code (IBC), and most jurisdictions that have adopted the IBC, allow five-story wood buildings (and potentially higher).

Outside the United States, interest in taller wood buildings is growing. Utilizing mass timber techniques and, in particular cross-laminated timber, a 10-story wood apartment building has been completed in Melbourne, Australia, and eight- and nine-story buildings exist in the United Kingdom and Austria. In British Columbia, the building code was changed in 2009 to allow six-story residential wood buildings, up from the previous four.

 Wood’s code-compliance goes beyond life safety and structural requirements as it is a viable option for architects looking to meet new green building codes and standards. Wood buildings can be designed to achieve a high level of energy efficiency, and life-cycle assessment studies consistently show that wood is better for the environment than other materials in terms of embodied energy, air and water pollution, and carbon footprint. These benefits, paired with the growing need for multifamily/multipurpose structures in dense urban areas, position wood as a material of choice across the United States.

Telegraph Apartments

Currently under construction, the Telegraph Apartments in Berkeley, Calif., is a prime example of wood’s structural capabilities. Located close to the Hayward fault in an area with extremely high seismic forces, the Telegraph Apartments uses a combination of dimension lumber and engineered wood products to meet strict code requirements for seismicity.

The 40-unit multifamily development includes four stories of wood-frame construction over a one-story post-tensioned concrete podium, and is a manifestation of the growing need for urban density. It is an infill project that offers 37,885 square feet of living space between two neighboring structures.

Stella Apartments

Similarly, Stella Apartments in Marina Del Rey, Calif., is an example of a dense urban project that is being developed in response to a trend toward pedestrian-friendly developments while meeting fire protection and seismic requirements. Namely, the Stella Apartments project is an expression of the future of multifamily housing: a pedestrian friendly, transit-oriented, mixed-use development surrounded by essential services and entertainment opportunities for 244 households.

Situated at the convergence of Maxella Avenue, Lincoln Boulevard and the Marina Freeway, two nested wood-framed L-shaped masses, oriented for maximum access to light and views, are set atop a concrete podium that houses 9,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and 578 parking stalls.

From the residential blocks to an expansive outdoor amenity deck, Olympic-sized pool, large sand beach, gym, resident lounges, yoga and spa rooms, the mixed-use structure draws on the creative traditions of Venice Beach while addressing the challenging regulatory environment of Los Angeles. Fire-resistant treated wood was used for the exterior wall system, and the building's wood-frame structure meets the area's strict seismic requirements. Prefabricated panels were built off site and used for the walls and floor systems, adding an element of coordination complexity that contributed to an overall time and labor savings.

Emory Point

In addition to the versatility demonstrated by these projects, a mixed-use complex in Atlanta showcases wood as an efficient solution for contractors. A vibrant, urban infill development, Emory Point is a 442-unit project that provides retail and residential living options for employees working at the adjacent global headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Emory Healthcare, Emory University and a number of other schools.

Completed last year, the project exemplifies wood's cost effectiveness. Framing costs were a key consideration and a number of systems were examined before wood was selected. According to Brad Ellinwood,  a project engineer for Ellinwood + Machado LLC, one of the structural engineers on the project, the cost for the structural frame portion only of the building was approximately $14 per square foot.

Fortune-Johnson Contracting compressed a 24-month construction schedule into 18 months by using wood-frame construction.

Through the examination each of these wood structures, it is easy to observe the benefits associated with timber. From safety and code compliance to cost, versatility and environmental footprint, wood speaks for itself in terms of the value it provides.

Lisa Podesto is a California-licensed professional engineer and senior technical director for WoodWorks, as well as the national lead for Building Systems. For more information, contact her at

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