In Canton, 28 Walker Development is preparing to construct Baltimore’s first mass timber office building. Image courtesy of 28 Walker Development

Asked how he feels about leading the first mass timber construction projects in Baltimore City, Chesapeake Contracting Group Vice President Dan Hannon replies, “Excited, beyond your wildest imagination.” 

Well established in Europe and increasingly common along the West Coast of the United States, mass timber is beginning to get a toehold in Maryland. The process prefabricates structural components and delivers a “kit of parts” to be assembled on site. Mass timber has sufficient structural strength to support buildings up to 18 stories yet weighs about one-fifth of comparable concrete structures (reducing foundation costs). The process has a lower carbon footprint than steel and concrete construction and produces buildings with an “eco aesthetic.”

Early this year, 28 Walker Development unveiled its plans for 40TEN — a mass timber, Class A, five-story office building in the Collective at Canton. 

“We had seen timber buildings in other places and thought this style really resonated with the preferences we are seeing in Baltimore,” said Scott Slosson, Chief Operating Officer. 

Projects like McHenry Row and the conversion of the Phillips Seafood warehouse into offices had demonstrated the market demand for “charm and character in office buildings,” Slosson said. “With heavy timber, we can create a unique atmosphere that has warmth and character that you don’t get in standard office buildings.” 

The mass timber process prefabricates a building’s structural components and delivers a ‘kit of parts’ to be assembled on-site. Photo courtesy of DPR Construction.

Slosson predicts that high-quality, highly inviting office space will become even more important as the pandemic wanes and employers try to attract workers back to offices after they have become comfortable working from home.  

“You may well see a flight to quality and uniqueness in the office market,” he said. With heavy timber construction, pandemic-conscious design elements and ready access to a variety of amenities, “we think 40TEN represents the future of the office.” 

The project comes with significant challenges. 28 Walker, Chesapeake Contracting and Moseley Architects conducted extensive research and nationwide site visits to better understand mass timber construction.  

“There is a huge coordination and logistics requirement to the assembly of a mass timber project to guarantee the overall timely delivery,” Hannon said.  

Shop and fabrication drawings for the structure must be finalized five months before erection is scheduled to begin “and once you have decided on the layout of the vertical supports, you don’t want to change your mind,” Hannon said. “It is very difficult to stop this train, call Austria and say, we want to move a column line three feet… Did I mention the columns and beams are coming from Austria while the Dowell Laminating Timber (DLT) members are being manufactured in British Columbia?” 

The supply chain for this relatively-new-to-America construction system is quite limited, said Matthew O’Malley, Preconstruction and Commercial Market Lead for DPR Construction. Consequently, “it takes a very long time to get this material and it’s expensive.” 

The price difference from conventional construction varies from project to project. Several studies completed by DPR along with pro forma work on mass timber projects in multiple states suggests the system can cost from $10 to $20 extra per square foot, O’Malley said. 

“But some owners are able to command a premium rent on these buildings and differentiate their product from competing office properties” he said. “It’s really beautiful space and very different from anything you would see in a concrete or steel-framed building.” 

In addition to surrounding occupants in warm, finished-wood surfaces, timber buildings can help with noise control, light glare and even improve air quality. To date, some of the biggest adopters of mass timber construction have been the four big tech firms who believe the buildings “give them an edge over their competitors in retaining top talent,” said Jodi Paci, Business Development Manager at DPR. 

Mass timber can deliver other business benefits, Hannon said. Formerly a professional in the manufactured housing industry, he reasons that mass timber’s prefabrication process can generate cost savings for specific types of projects. He points to the example of Elm Street Development’s multi-family project at 2001 Aliceanna Street. When the project costs were evaluated, the project team began looking for ways to trim expenses while not diminishing quality. Hannon approached StructureCraft, the mass timber manufacturer that 28 Walker contracted for the 40TEN project.  

After considerable study, the project team determined that they could switch the design for one of the building’s exoskeleton from metal to mass timber and “there would be considerable cost savings, without compromising the value of the original structure designed by Hord Coplan Macht or the longevity of the material,” Hannon said. Furthermore, “the textures of the wood against the building will be exceptional.” 

Consequently, StructureCraft will erect two mass timber structures in Baltimore this September — 40TEN and 2001 Aliceanna.