Don’t Get Soft on Wood Buildings

Wood structures seem to have gotten a bad rap the last few years. It’s not entirely their fault. The skyrocketing land costs have pushed projects to go to more stories than a conventional wood frame building allows to get the number of units needed. Massive price hikes and volatility of material costs have also made it a less desirable building material to use.

Throughout the years The Douglas Company has proudly worked hard to build as much of our work out of wood as possible. We thought we should revisit the good reasons and tactics for doing so that still exist today.

Wood framing is simply faster than other methods. Modular and panelized systems abound in our industry now, but none of them from our experience go up faster than a wood-framed structure. Despite some of the scary lead times we’ve seen over the last two years, wood framing materials involve many fewer touches and have a less complex raw material to finish product cycle than its metal competitors. Fewer touches in the manufacturing process mean less likelihood of a supply chain delay, which is critical right now.

Wood is still the most cost-effective way to build any low or mid-rise structure. There is no shortage of literature out there that will attempt to compare the cost of wood against other systems, but these analyses often omit some of the other costs that changing framing methods brings, such as insulation requirements or changes to your MEP systems. Even at some of the record high prices earlier this summer, wood buildings were still pricing out lower overall than concrete or metal buildings.

It is tempting for designers to add additional stories and keep to an original site plan, without thinking of alternatives to avoid changing the structure type. Sometimes these decisions don’t consider all the options correctly. For example, it may seem logical to build a building with a smaller footprint and taller structure on a site with poor soils. However, it is likely the costs added to go to non-combustible framing methods are greater than the cost of deep foundations if the project footprint were expanded and building height lowered. Sometimes adding a podium to gain an extra floor seems like a logical solution, but unless the tenant products going into that podium justifies the additional structure cost, this isn’t a good use of resources. Mixed concrete and wood structures with units throughout both structure types will have a higher cost per unit in the podium by $50,000, yet those units will fetch the same amount of rent, making the proforma difficult to reconcile.

These kinds of conversations can’t happen in a vacuum with a design team, they need to involve contractor and civil design as well to figure out the best way to achieve a project’s goals. There will always be use groups and jurisdictions that prevent wood framing from happening, but for many of the projects we see especially here in the Midwest, there are angles to making wood construction happen that should be explored.

Bruce Douglas, PMP, LEED AP BD+C

Executive Vice President, Midwest

The Douglas Company

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