Introducing CLT, the New (but Familiar) Building Material That’s Disrupting the Construction Industry
With community development and sustainability in mind, a Portland real-estate developer uses her own home renovation as an opportunity to experiment with a new building technique. The results seamlessly blend old and new.
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When real-estate developer Anyeley Hallová approached Thomas Robinson of Lever Architecture about updating her family’s Prairie-style house in Northeast Portland, the frequent collaborators were already communicating in a kind of shorthand. For years, Robinson and the Lever team had been working with Hallová on a number of projects with a sharp focus on sustainability, and on providing economic opportunities for minority communities in the Portland area. So it was no surprise they were quickly on the same page with a plan to preserve a grand old clinker brick home, in a culturally significant Black neighborhood, without turning it into a fusty restoration.
“The house was built in the 1920s, and owned by the African-American family of one of the first longshoremen in the area,” say Hallová, who is Ghanaian-American and has double master’s degrees in city planning and landscape architecture from MIT and Harvard. “They owned it for 60 years, and his sons sold it to us. We preserved the historic elements in the front of the house, but the project was a full gut. It becomes more modern toward the back of the house. I believe that you need to design for your time. Don’t try to mimic history.”
“It’s like an Elvis impersonator,” adds Robinson. “It’s fun, but it’s not the real thing. The biggest challenge, and the most interesting thing about updating older buildings, is the dialogue between old and new.” In addition to creating a stylish and functional family house, they seized the opportunity to demonstrate the potential of cross-laminated timber, or CLT, a construction material that’s new to the U.S. and that they’ve been instrumental in promoting.
Five years ago, Hallová partnered with Lever to enter The U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition organized by the United States Department of Agriculture. The goal was to introduce the building method, which has been popular in Europe for decades, to a wary American audience, and prove that multi-story buildings—even skyscrapers—can be made of wood, be fire-safe, and “rock and level” in the event of an earthquake. They worked together with a Portland-based affordable-housing initiative to design a 60-unit high-rise building, Framework. Short story: They won the contest, the U.S. building codes have been adjusted, and Framework is the first mixed-use, residential wood high-rise that’s been approved for construction. Now innovative CLT structures are popping up across the country, on college campuses, and museum grounds.
Robinson approaches his work like a chef. And if you’re Oregon-based and into using local materials, all signs point to lumber. “When you think about the farm-to-table movement, there’s a focus on how ingredients are produced and the impact of that production on the communities where they’re created,” he says.
CLT panels are made from thin layers of locally resourced timber glued together to create durable panels that can be as strong as steel and concrete. Buying local wood spreads the benefits of economic growth to nearby rural communities, contributes to healthily managed forests, and traps carbon in a building—instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
“People get really excited about solar power but may not be focused on the materials the homes are made of, or the energy used while creating and transporting them,” Robinson says.
Back at the home Hallová shares with her husband, Ed Halla, and their two young children, Lever’s design is fluid and clean-lined. It’s a modern construction inside of a historic shell, which evokes the sophisticated remodels you spot in Europe, where the façade is intact but the building opens up and fills with light as you walk through it. Hallová runs her new ethical development company, Adre, from the home office. In the backyard, a CLT cabana provides an outdoor room that evokes Hallová’s Florida childhood, and isn’t an aesthetic sore-thumb in the Pacific Northwest.
“Florida is a special place for us, and the cabana gives us a taste of a beach vacation in our yard,” she says. “It feels modern, and it’s economical.”
“You could think of CLT as plywood on steroids,” adds Robinson. “People like to live and work in spaces they feel good in. And wood connects to people.”