In a no-touch world of glowing screens, Zoom calls, and virtual reality, it’s encouraging to see something indisputably authentic that you can rap your knuckles on — like a big building made of good old wood.
Authenticity is one of the big ideas behind Intro, a $145 million Cleveland apartment building rising in Ohio City that will soon briefly enjoy bragging rights as America’s tallest mass timber building — a structure made of glue-laminated columns and beams, and cross-laminated floor panels.
Instead of synthetic materials that can look phony or contribute to global warming, Intro will highlight the warm materiality of blond hem-fir and spruce trees harvested in the Austrian Alps, near where the hills came alive for Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.’’
With 298 apartments and 35,000 square feet of street-level retail space plus amenities, Intro will rise nine stories at West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, just south of the West Side Market. Chicago-based Harbor Bay Real Estate Advisors LLC expects to finish work in about 10 months.
Eight of those stories, set atop a one-story concrete ground floor, will be structured out of wood. Now that construction has reached its 7th floor, Intro is poised to rise higher than the eight-story Carbon 12 mass timber condominium building in Portland, Oregon, the current U.S. record holder, completed in 2018.
Intro will then quickly fall into second place behind Ascent, a 25-story mass timber apartment tower under construction in Milwaukee and scheduled for completion in the summer of 2022.
Designed by Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture of Chicago, Intro isn’t the only mass timber project underway in Cleveland. The Cleveland Foundation has just started construction in Midtown on its new, three-story mass timber headquarters, designed by the New York architecture firm of S9 Architecture, with VOCON, of Cleveland.
Cities built of wood, from London to Chicago and San Francisco, have famously burned to the ground at key points since the 17th century. But mass timber, which emerged as a construction technology in Europe in the late 1980s, is now viewed as competitive with concrete and steel in strength and fire resistance.
Wood is also more sustainable. Concrete and steel are major contributors to global emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases. Wood is a “carbon sink,” meaning trees are reservoirs of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere. Trees grown to replace the ones used to build Intro will absorb additional carbon dioxide.
Mass timber’s virtues are not universally accepted. The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association has launched a national campaign, “Build With Strength,’’ arguing it’s risky to construct tall buildings out of wood. Nevertheless, model building codes, including the International Building Code, and local codes, such as Cleveland’s, approve of mass timber.
Willoughby native Dan Whelan, Harbor Bay’s 32-year-old vice president for design and development, chose mass timber because he wanted to do something distinctive next to the landmark West Side Market, built in 1912.
“We wanted to say, ‘we sit across the street from one of the most historic buildings in the city and we wanted to add to that history as opposed to just slapping up a vanilla building,’ ’’ he said.
When it’s done, Intro will show off its roots, so to speak. Nearly half of the building’s interior surfaces will be exposed structural wood, including precisely cut beams, columns and ceilings in bedrooms and living rooms. Rents will range on average from $2.60 to $2.70 a square foot, starting at $1,200 a month for a studio.
James Litwin, vice president of construction for Harbor Bay, thinks future residents will love having all that wood around. Natural materials answer a cultural yearning for contact with something real in a digital world, he said.
“We’re human, we’re not cyborgs,’’ he said. “Come here, you’ll feel like a human.”
Such language may sound like marketing, but there’s undeniable beauty in seeing the raw materials come together.
On Tuesday, the construction site had the pleasant feel of a gigantic woodshop, minus the sawdust, because any trimming and assembly of timbers and steel connection parts occurs at a staging area a few miles away in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.
Up on the seventh floor, in a stiff wind and bright sunlight, union carpenters used a portable steel gantry crane mounted on wheels to lift 14-by-14-inch columns into place, while a tower crane raised beams spanning between the columns.
Each length of timber had steel plates or bracket-like “haunches” at the ends, which slipped neatly onto bolts attached to previously assembled members. Once the carpenters guided the big pieces together by hand, they secured the steel connections by slipping on washers and nuts, tightening them first with their fingers, then with wrenches.
(The bolted connections are later encased in concrete, making them impossible to loosen, Whelan said).
The carpenters made the process look easy and quick, like assembling a big piece of D-I-Y furniture, even in gusts up to 35 mph. And that, Litwin said, illustrates another virtue of mass timber: Intro is going up about 25 percent faster than typical concrete or steel construction.
Structural pieces fit together quickly, and it’s much simpler to attach plumbing, air-conditioning equipment, and other architectural viscera to wood than to other structural materials, he said.
“You could put on a blindfold, take a No. 10 screw in a screw gun, and stick it up in the air and you’re going to hit something that you’re going be able to bite into,’’ Litwin said. “Our plumbers and HVAC subs are thrilled with this.”
On the Intro job, mass timber costs about $38 a square foot in comparison to $35 for concrete, Litwin said. But the speed of construction is making up for the higher cost.
Harbor Bay chose to have its mass timber components manufactured and shipped via containers from Binderholz GmbH, based in Fügen in the Tirol region of Austria. Even with shipping, the price was lower than in America, where the industry is younger and can’t yet match the efficiency and capacity of older European firms, Litwin and Whelan said.
Intro is intended to be the first phase of a project that could involve a second-phase office tower immediately south of the nine-story apartment building.
Uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic persuaded Whelan to hold off on the next building until he’s sure there’s demand for office space or more residential units. Whatever Harbor Bay decides, Whelan said he wants to go even higher than the 10 stories originally planned for the second building.
“We’re comfortably able to push the limits on that second building, most likely in the mid-teens,’’ he said.
And Litwin vows that given what Harbor Bay has learned in its first outing with mass timber, construction will go even faster than the 21-month schedule estimated for Intro.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether, when, and how quickly the next building goes up. For now, Intro is a reminder that in a material world, what a building is made of can say a lot about the values — environmental, aesthetic and, even psychological — that led to its construction.