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California Developers Lining Up To Use CLT

California could be opening itself up to a wave of wood development starting when the economy restarts post-coronavirus.

As early as next week, the California Building Standards Commission will formally vote on whether the state's local jurisdictions can adopt an International Building Code standard allowing mass timber buildings of up to 18 stories. If it does so, following Oregon and Washington, a number of developers will be ready, according to Swinerton Project Manager Dean Lewis.

"I know there are some developers and project teams right now that know that once that code is in writing, they’re just going to take that to the building department and do an alternate means and methods request and use that to facilitate their project," Lewis said last week during Bisnow's Mass Timber and CLT webinar.

Some indication of what is to come might be found in what occurred in Oregon and Washington after those two states preemptively adopted the IBC in 2019, according to Lewis.

“They adopted the 2021 provisions preemptively back in 2019 in July, and what we saw from there is a bunch of buildings all of a sudden pop up from design teams because the floodgate was opened," he said. "All of a sudden you could do eight-, 12-, 18-story buildings, so we’ve got a handful of those that we’re working on right now up in the Northwest."

The use of mass timber, which often takes the form of cross-laminated timber, or CLT, in construction offers the potential for development cost savings, significantly more sustainability and potentially faster building than traditional stick-frame construction, experts say.

Clockwise from top left: Swinerton Project Manager Dean Lewis, Bisnow Event Producer Matt Seukunian, San Francisco Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Todd Davis and DPR Construction Project Executive Marshall Andrews

Though upfront costs for CLT construction are currently higher than prices for traditional steel and concrete, savings can be found over the life of a project, DPR Construction Project Executive Marshall Andrews said during the webinar. Weeks or, for larger projects, months of construction time can be shaved off timelines with the use of CLT, he said. 

"We typically see a bit of an increased cost upfront on the materials end, but it can easily be offset with speed of construction," Andrews said.

Wood is also more sustainable than traditional concrete construction; cement is the source of about 8% of carbon dioxide emissions, Bisnow moderator Matt Seukunian pointed out. 

San Francisco Housing Action Coalition Executive Director Todd Davis, another webinar panelist, said he cautions against forgetting that transit-oriented development is perhaps the most sustainable type of housing development, given the fact passenger vehicles are California's biggest carbon emitter.

"When we can build housing right near jobs in a transit center and people can walk or take public transit to their job, that is probably the best thing we can do for the environment," he said. “Making those buildings near jobs and transit built with something like CLT is the icing on the cake."

Contact Dean Boerner at dean.boerner@bisnow.com.