Inside One Of The First Mass Timber Offices On The East Coast
A building that helped write the mass timber construction code in D.C. is nearly ready to welcome tenants to its innovative redevelopment.
80 M St. SE, an office building owned by Columbia Property Trust in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood, was one of the first commercial office spaces in the country to be built with mass timber, which is created by pressing together wood planks.
The building is now 71% leased, with 50K SF of leases or renewals signed since January 2021, Jesse Stephens, Columbia senior director of development and construction, said at a ULI event Monday.
"Being a unique building, or at least a unique structure, was a huge advantage to us," Stephens said.
Across the country, developers are exploring the possibility of mass timber as a lighter and more sustainable building material than concrete and steel. Over the past decade, the size of mass timber projects that building codes have allowed architects and engineers to design has steadily risen, and new capacity is building out in the United States and specifically the East Coast to meet the demand for lumber.
The 80M project was one of the first in the District to use mass timber when Columbia, which was acquired and taken private by Pacific Investment Management Co. last year, submitted plans in 2019.
At the time, the D.C. building code was following 2013 standards, which hadn't yet incorporated mass timber. But project partners Columbia, Hickok Cole, Arup and Davis Construction were able to convince the District to work with them on the project to ensure it met safety guidelines with the support of the Department of Energy & Environment.
What's more, 80M was able to lock in pricing before lumber costs skyrocketed, enabling the $65M project to be financed through Columbia's corporate balance sheet at a premium of only 1% compared to steel, Stephens said.
"That felt like as much of a no-brainer as you can get," Stephens said.
Plans for the 107K SF addition, which takes 80M's total footprint to 392K SF, began when Columbia wanted to add new floors to the office building first constructed in the early 2000s.
But the challenges of adding on to the existing structure quickly became evident: the building would only be able to add three floors of commodity-grade space due to height restrictions in the District, and building that addition with concrete would have required substantially altering the foundation, disrupting occupancy and costing a premium.
Steel was a natural solution to the weight associated with concrete, but architectural firm Hickok Cole, which was brought on to help design the addition, had another idea.
"It was a question that answered itself as time went on," Stephens said. "It was, 'OK, let’s go with timber.'
At the time, the idea of a mass timber structure for a commercial office was so new that the D.C. code had no real guidelines.
The project team, including Arup principal David Barber, who helped draft International Building Code mass timber fire safety guidelines, worked with permitting agency DCRA to develop rules that the project would abide by.
Among other assurances, the team tested and confirmed that the structural timber elements used in the addition are rated to withstand a fire for two hours, meeting the standard of any other type of commercial material that could be used for the space.
"[The timber] actually chars and eventually goes out," Stephens said. "If you think about building a campfire and the log is basically too big, that’s what happens."
Many of the structural timber elements were built off-site and assembled on top of the office in a shortened timeline compared to a concrete or steel build-out. With a roughly 12-person team, the addition topped out within six weeks, Stephens said.
Last fall, the addition was closed out with 15-foot glass curtain walls that allowed sunlight to penetrate deep into the offices. The project includes a new penthouse amenity space and private terraces for tenants.
"In a way, we kept the mass timber as the easiest part of the equation and the hardest part was integrating it with the existing parts of the building," Arup Senior Structural Engineer Lauren Wingo said.
There is still more work to do to lease up the building. WeWork signed on to 69K SF on the first three floors in 2016, and per its lease terms will remain until at least 2028. The American Trucking Associations, a tenant before the addition was built, signed a lease through 2038 that will include 40% of the vertical expansion. SAIC, which occupies more than 40K SF, is also in the building.
Since the project began construction, the D.C. building code has been altered to incorporate mass timber guidelines. Wright said the proliferation of mass timber fabricators around the country and the success of projects that are now being completed have begun to push the material into the mainstream.
“For those that are sustainability-focused, it’s certainly a viable option,” Wright said. “I think it’s becoming a part of the lexicon for everyone, whereas five years ago it just wasn’t.”