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How Mass Timber Is Reshaping Civic Buildings From Procurement To Completion

Swinerton crews lower the last cross-laminated timber roof panel into place at the new 83K SF Wingspan Conference and Event Center in Hillsboro, Oregon.

With a cantilevered second floor that hangs above the entrance and immense wood beams that stretch 91 feet across the ceiling of its indoor gymnasium, the Hidden Creek Community Center hardly looks like an average public building. But its sleek design is part of a growing trend. It is one of two new civic buildings in Hillsboro, Oregon, built with mass timber.

While traditional construction relies on steel and concrete, mass timber construction uses prefabricated beams made of layered wood, which are lighter and stronger than steel.

Mass timber has become a trusted material for offices and residences, but many of the most notable mass timber buildings have been led by the public sector. The advantages of mass timber as a material are especially significant for civic construction: a shorter construction timeline, predictable costs, a smaller carbon footprint and the ability to create beautiful indoor spaces that reflect the natural landscape outside.

At Hidden Creek, the inspiration for construction came from a nearby office project. The mass timber team at Swinerton, a national contractor, was wrapping up the construction of a new office for First Tech Federal Credit Union in Hillsboro — a neighbor of Portland, and Oregon’s fifth-largest city, with over 100,000 residents — when the city manager asked for a tour of the site. 

Construction over the summer in the gymnasium at the now-completed Hidden Creek Community Center in Hillsboro, Oregon, showing the 91-foot glulam beams.

“We walked through the building with the town’s staff and explained the delivery process and the benefits,” Swinerton Director of Preconstruction William Silva said. “I think it complemented their own research into mass timber and opened their eyes to what these materials can do. The city manager went back and proposed that the community center be built with mass timber.”

Typically, cities go through hard-bid processes to find contractors to construct civic buildings. At that point, the design is usually more set in stone, and it becomes harder to make the switch to mass timber. 

“The further down the path you go, the harder it is to step back and improve the building,” Silva said. “If you can collect everyone — the owner, the architect, the contractor, the material specialist, the jurisdictional agency — all around the same table at the outset of a project, you’ll be able to make a much stronger final product.”

While the city manager was initially met with resistance from the project team, he made the case that mass timber would mean an aesthetically stunning landmark that pointed to a more sustainable future for Hillsboro. Plus, there were the financial benefits: Swinerton had built the 156K SF First Tech building for a 4% lower budget than traditional construction techniques and in a timeline that was four months shorter. 

Hidden Creek Community Center in Hillsboro, Oregon, showing the 19-foot, cantilevered second floor above the entryway.

Through a request for proposals process, Hillsboro brought Swinerton on to provide pre-construction and construction services for the Hidden Creek Community Center. Then Washington County, of which Hillsboro is the county seat, brought Swinerton on to construct the Wingspan Event and Conference Center, an 89K SF event space.

Opsis Architecture had laid out the unique hybrid tilt-up concrete and mass timber design for Hidden Creek, while LRS Architects designed Wingspan’s mass timber butterfly roof on top of steel-framed glass galleries.

Part of the reason that the buildings were able to be successful both architecturally and financially, Silva said, was the fact that Hillsboro and Washington County brought Swinerton into some of the earliest planning meetings for the buildings. 

Silva estimates that by using mass timber, Hillsboro shaved four months off the construction timeline for Hidden Creek, while Washinton County saved three months at Wingspan. And even with construction pauses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, both buildings were delivered on budget. 

The choice to work with Swinerton also provided Hillsboro with solid measures of the projects’ sustainability. Silva and his team were able to report carbon avoidance, or how much carbon Hillsboro avoided by using mass timber instead of steel and concrete, and carbon sequestration, or how much carbon dioxide the project actively removed from the atmosphere.

Sustainability is a driving force for public sector interest in mass timber construction. Swinerton is working on mass timber projects for Oregon State University, Chemeketa Community College and the University of California at Santa Cruz, all of which sought out mass timber to reach the net zero carbon emissions goals that they have set for their institutions.

The Wingspan Event and Conference Center In Hillsboro, Oregon, built by Swinerton

While cutting down trees might not initially seem eco-friendly, in heavily wooded states in the Southeast and the Pacific Northwest, it is far greener than using steel, especially since Swinerton is often able to source lumber from within a few hundred miles of the building itself.

“We would ask visitors to the First Tech office how long they thought it would take the state of Oregon to regrow all the timber we had used,” Silva said. “They would guess years or even decades. But in 46 minutes, Oregon had regrown all this wood. That’s the real measure of a renewable resource.”

The strength of mass timber also meant that Opsis and LRS both could design huge windows that let copious natural light into the two buildings. Silva described how the light hues and even the smell of the wood created a cozy, bright, vibrant atmosphere.

“People just have such a strong connection to wood,” Silva said. “It was amazing to watch people’s reactions as they stepped into these spaces, and we would wrap up tours and it was like they had just had a breath of fresh air.”

Silva gave immense credit to Opsis and LRS for having come up with such innovative and detailed designs for the two public buildings. He described one conversation with a public official who worried that when Hillsboro residents saw how beautiful the two buildings were, they would accuse the city of having exceeded the budget for the projects.

But with the two projects on budget, Silva said, Hillsboro and Washington County will be able to cherish the two mass timber projects for years to come.

This article was produced in collaboration between Swinerton and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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