Skip to main content
Home » Construction in America » Revolutionizing the Built Environment
Construction in America

Revolutionizing the Built Environment

Photo: Courtesy of Zhipeng Ya

Building developers and owners are exploring beautiful and sustainable alternatives to concrete and steel for raising tall structures, according to Steve White, principal at Fentress Architects. One emerging option: cross-laminated timber, a type of structural wood made not with large, old-growth trees but fast-growing trees like spruce or Douglas fir. A survey conducted by the University of Utah revealed that building owners selected structural timber because it can reduce a building’s carbon footprint while delivering on emotional appeal and aesthetics.

It can also shave months off the construction schedule. According to Barbara Schaefer McDuffie, managing director of accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly, cross-laminated timber is “like adult Legos” and able to be put together on an accelerated timetable.

In Portland, Oregon, LEVER Architecture is working on a 12-story wood building called Framework that will be the first mass-timber high-rise in the United States. The skyscraper, expected to be completed in 2018 or mid-2019, incorporates a wood core structure and glass for a modern, sophisticated look. Framework’s research and development phase included over 40 tests of groundbreaking seismic, fire and acoustic tests that will be open source to serve as a model for future tall wood projects in the U.S. incorporating mass timber and state-of-the-art building techniques.

Bold design

Striking and intricate designs using glass-on-aluminum and other complex materials for a building’s outer “skin” can make the edifice into a statement piece. This style first emerged in the healthcare sector and has expanded into civic projects such as museums; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art features 700 different glass panel geometries to create a wave-like effect on the outside of the museum, while bronze-colored metal latticework envelops the three outer tiers of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

These cultural and institutional projects are “a great source of inspiration for what’s possible,” said Jeffrey Vaglio, PhD, Vice President of Enclos, a facade engineering and curtainwall design company. These projects’ unique designs and ground-breaking building techniques have paved the way for other building developers to step outside of convention to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

Modernizing obsolete buildings​​​​​​​

Across the country, commercial real estate developers and owners are updating old, unused buildings for contemporary uses. This redevelopment can make a dramatic impact in urban areas where available space is constrained. On the South Side of Chicago, a 1970s-era, functionally obsolete warehouse found new life as a modern distribution facility thanks to a partnership between Venture One Real Estate and DRA Advisors LLC. Known by its address, 2801 S. Western Ave., it is located just over three miles from Chicago’s central business district and has easy access to major transportation routes. The developer created more than two dozen new loading docks; installed new HVAC, lighting and sprinkler systems; added additional parking and upgraded the building façade. The property is now fully leased to national food production and distribution company The Chef’s Warehouse as well as an international e-commerce retailer, both of which require quick delivery of their products.

Flexibility for the future

The advent of self-driving vehicles gives rise to the need for building and infrastructure accommodations that account for shifting transportation needs. Autonomous vehicles could let off their passengers at the front of a building and then park themselves within inches of each other in a parking garage, maximizing the parking space available. “You don’t need as much lane space when cars are talking to each other,” said Patrick McMahon, director of development for Federal Realty Investment Trust. McMahon explained how a traditional parking garage that might allow for 148 spaces could increase the number of spaces to 240 if the parking garage were optimized for self-driving vehicles, freeing up the available space for other uses.

In Cincinnati, mixed-use development 84.51° Centre was designed with the future in mind. The building comprises 280,000 square feet of office space for anchor tenant 84.51°, a consumer analytics company, in addition to street-level retail and parking both under- and aboveground. Architecture firm Gensler incorporated design elements from the office space into the three aboveground parking levels, including high ceilings and mushroom-shaped columns, with the intention that the space could be converted into additional office space down the road.  

With self-driving vehicles reaching a point of “when,” not “if,” it’s critical for developers to be ready to respond. Autonomous vehicles are “a revolution, not an evolution,” said Dale Dekker, AIA, AICP, principal and architect with Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, an architecture, interior design, planning, engineering and landscape architecture firm. “We’re going from a horse and carriage to a high-speed Corvette or an F-16 in just 5–10 years,” Dekker said. “Get ready — and get your jetpacks on.”

Next article