Outdoor space at 283 Green Avenue, #4C.
Constructing buildings out of wood is a solution to climate change, since trees can be replanted, while the production of concrete generates pollution, some environmentalists say.
But years after wood buildings were hailed as the next wave in green technology, there are few to show for it in New York. And the handful of apartment buildings that are up and running seem to have taken an unusually complicated route.
“It has been a process, yes, and sometimes frustrating,” said Joanne Wilson, the founder of Frame Home, a development firm.
When she launched her company about five years ago, Wilson envisioned it creating a long line of wooden apartment buildings stretching across Brooklyn. But as of today, Wilson has just one completed project, 283 Greene Ave., a 10-unit rental in Clinton Hill that is one of the few ground-up multifamilly buildings whose structure is mostly wood.
“Still, I think it’s important,” she said, “that people try to make a difference with their carbon footprint to make a difference in the environment”
The stumbles of a once-promising eco-friendly movement have a bit to do with the pandemic. The special lumber needed for wood buildings, or “mass timber,” usually results in money being saved on projects because the timber, which comes in panels, is often prefabricated. Fewer workers are needed to install them than with concrete or steel.
But with supply chains crimped, the timber, which is comprised of glued-together pieces, has soared in value to the point where it’s 35% above its pre-Covid price, suppliers say.
“You can’t even get it any more,” said Miguel Vega, a sales representative at Kamco Supply Corp, a local chain, who added providers have slapped limits on how much of the timber each Kamco location can order, which wasn’t the case before the pandemic. Others say that the special glue used for the timber, which comes from overseas, is specifically driving the increased costs.
But the bigger roadblock in the way of a citywide rollout of mass-timber buildings, which usually use wood for their columns and beams, may be city officials themselves.
“There has just been a continuing lack of clarity about what’s allowed,” said Bill Caleo, a co-founder of the Brooklyn Home Company, a developer who is putting the finishing touches on a 14-unit mass-timber condo project at 670 Union St. in Park Slope called Timber House.
But it’s been a slow and complicated process. At first, Caleo sought to use a type of timber called cross-laminated timber, which has pieces glued at perpendicular angles. The Department of Buildings gave its blessing to that type of material, said Caleo, who bought his site for $1.8 million in 2017.
Special approval was needed because, at the time, the city’s building code banned CLT. Officials were concerned that the many seams from the joined-together pieces made the lumber structurally weak, which would be an even greater concern in a fire. (The code does allow wood to be joined lengthwise, as if in a sandwich, because it logically has to: Historic warehouses and SoHo lofts had been constructed this way, analysts say. That material is usually referred to as glue-laminated timber.)
But just as Brooklyn Home was about to pour its foundation, Caleo said, officials with the Buildings Department suddenly switched gears and said CLT was off limits. Caleo and his team leaned on his local City Council member to change the situation, but it was no use. The six-story building had to switch to GLT, which he said he fortunately bought before Covid hit.
“Buildings was having none of it,” said Eric Liftin, the founder of Mesh Architectures, which designed Timber House. “I think the Fire Department doesn’t like wood to begin with, so the fact that there’s another product out there, CLT, is just too much.”
Timber House, which has studios starting at $450,000, has sold 12 of its 14 apartments since sales began during the spring, said Caleo, who expects a $30 million sellout. But he awaits a certificate of occupancy, which he hopes to get during the summer.
Timber House at 670 Union St. in Park Slope.
Fire danger can seem real in a city as dense as New York. Fans of timber, though, say wood isn’t as risky as one might think, because it chars like a log in a campfire, never quite falling apart.
Frank Dwyer, a Fire Department spokesman, said his department had swung in favor of CLT buildings because they come with extra sprinkler requirements.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Buildings Department said its officials had explicitly told the Timber House team it could not use CLT and that the reason why permits were delayed for the project for two years had to do with other issues.
Changes are on the horizon. In the fall of 2021, the City Council voted to change the building code to allow CLT in buildings in New York. The code changed hasn’t kicked in yet. It will take effect in the fall, a normal amount of time to wait for a code change, department spokesman Andrew Rudansky said.
Still, in a way, the change can seem to fall far short of what many pro-wood developers seek. Indeed, it allows CLT to be used in buildings that top out at just seven stories in a city thick with high-rises. For New York to keep pace with cities such as Portland, Oregon, Minneapolis and Atlanta where tall mass-timber buildings are more common, it needs to dramatically loosen its rules, they say. Many cities, relying on global building codes, allow timber buildings of up to 18 stories.
“The world is way ahead of us, and I think it’s still the really early days in New York City for this,” said Brent Buck, an architect who is working with Wilson on her next wood building, 112 Waverly Ave., a five-story 14-unit version in Clinton Hill.
Demolitions just started during the summer at the site, which Wilson bought for $8 million in 2019. Even though three years have passed since the project has broken ground, Wilson denies that her project, which will use CLT even before it’s officially permitted, is behind schedule.
“We’re in no hurry,” she said. “We’re taking our time.”
But if she is spooked by the current mood about wood buildings, it might be understandable. In 2020, as she was wrapping up construction on 283 Greene, building inspectors showed up to inspect her property to make sure it was livable and then announced that its CLT—which is embedded throughout the building and highly visible—was not allowed. Years of work threatened to go down the drain.
“I said, ‘You guys made an error, and we know that CLT is about to be approved,’" Wilson said.
The building eventually got its certificate of occupancy, although it took a few more months.
“Still, it shows you that we were able to create a building that works,” she said. “It’s time for the city to put its foot on the gas and get CLT approved.”
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