Apr 29, 2022 - Real Estate

Austin joins mass timber movement

Hotel Magdalena's lobby. Photo: Nick Simonite

You don't have to go far to see that the country's "mass timber" movement has found a space in Austin, part of a growing global effort to construct high-rises and other buildings out of wood composites rather than steel and concrete.

Why it matters: Lightweight, attractive and sturdy, mass timber buildings are considered carbon-friendly alternatives to conventional ones — and some people prefer their warmth, character and texture, writes Axios' Jennifer A. Kingson.

Just off South Congress, Austin's Hotel Magdalena — which opened in 2020 — became the first mass timber boutique hotel in North America.

  • If you've stopped by to grab a drink by the pool or dine at Summer House on Music Lane, you've likely noticed the exposed timber walkways.
  • Hotel Magdalena's mass timber panels, structural walls and heavy timber porches were prefabricated off-site to help streamline their building schedule.

What they're saying: Texas-based hospitality company Bunkhouse Group and Lake Flato architects chose mass timber construction for the 89-room hotel because it offered a lower carbon footprint, energy savings and more, according to Amar Lalvani, executive chairman of Standard International, the parent company of Bunkhouse.

  • "By utilizing mass timber construction, not only we were able to use more environmentally sensitive building materials, we were able to go vertical very early in the construction process, which allowed us to focus more on the interior elements, fit out, design and quality control with the various subcontractors," Lalvani said.

Meanwhile, Houston real estate firm Hines announced last year it would incorporate mass timber into an office and residential project in East Austin, expected to open by mid-2023.

  • The office concept, T3, will offer 92,000 square feet of office space and 15 loft-style residential units at 1200 E. 4th St.

Hines has 16 total timber projects globally, and in 2012, the group became the first company to build a modern building out of timber in the U.S. since the 1920s.

  • "We're really only at the beginning of global adoption of timber as a global construction technology," Steve Luthman, Hines' senior managing director, told Axios.
The view from a balcony at Hotel Magdelena, with chairs in the foreground and other balconies in the background.
A terrace suite balcony at Hotel Magdalena. Photo: Nick Simonite

How it works: Mass — or "massive" — timber is "wood that is glued and pressed in special ways to make it similar in strength to concrete and steel and thus capable of replacing those building materials even for skyscrapers and other massive edifices," per the WSJ.

  • You still need steel and concrete for the foundation and other elements.
  • And if you're wondering about the fire risk, it's minimal.

Zoom out: While Europe has embraced the mass timber movement, the U.S. is only starting to catch up.

  • In October, the New York City Council approved the use of mass timber for buildings up to 85 feet tall — six or seven stories.
  • An 80-story wooden tower called the River Beech project is proposed for Chicago.
  • Carbon12, an eight-story condominium building in Portland, Oregon, made of cross-laminated timber (CLT), was in the vanguard when it opened in 2018.

Tallest so far: The 18-story Mjøstårnet — or Mjösa Tower — opened in 2019 in Brumunddal, Norway, and includes office space, apartments and a 72-room hotel.

What's next: Expect to see lots of mass timber buildings rising in cities across the U.S. — apartment towers and office complexes — and marketed as "green."

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