Framework Tall Wood Tower in Portland gets the chop

Framework exterior
© Lever Architecture

This is a huge setback for tall wood.

The Framework Tower in Portland, one of the most interesting tall wood projects on the boards, has been cancelled due to “financial considerations.”

Lever Architecture’s 12 storey building was one of two winners of a competition to support study into tall wood buildings. In our earlier post on it, Framework Tall Wood Tower in Portland sprouting soon, Thomas Robinson of Lever gave one of the most evocative descriptions of why we should build out of local wood, and how it might change the way we think about building:

Connecting directly with the people who were making the materials for a project resonated with me in the same way the farm-to-table movement has changed how we relate to our food. As a firm, we are very much driven by the ingredients – the materials – that go into constructing buildings. This “forest to frame” approach, as we call it, has led us to seek projects that are reshaping how people think about wood construction.

Framework Lobby© Lever Architecture/ Lobby

There were hints of trouble in January, when Rachel Monahan of Willamette Week noted that it was “attracting critics because it would be far more expensive to build than a traditional concrete and steel structure.” Framework was supposed to be “a catalytic project which will serve as a national case study”, but it was controversial because of its cost.

It will be a pricey test case in which two-bedroom apartments measuring just 660 square feet will cost $567,389 each to build, according to the county housing authority Home Forward's calculations, which include a portion of the common area attached to each apartment.

Monahan also noted that there was a funding shortfall of about $2 million. That was never closed, and in a recent article, Monahan writes:

The Housing Bureau justified the decision to spend urban renewal dollars on the project in part by saying the project was ready to go, including funding. But it wasn't. The project faced a $2 million funding gap, which had not been filled.

Amanda Kolson Hurley, who wrote a terrific article about the building late last year, got this message:

DR Johnson press release© D. R. Johnson

There are lots of crazy changing market conditions happening right now; lumber has spiked from US$315 at the start of 2017 to US$540 earlier this year, thanks to increased demand because of the hot American economy and big tariffs imposed by the Trump government on Canadian lumber. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) uses a lot of wood, so a big increase like that is going to make a difference. The alternatives, steel and concrete, have also spiked because of tariffs, generally making all kinds of housing less affordable.

CLT is still new and expensive, and between tax cuts that lit a fire under the economy and tariffs that lit a fire under material prices, it is a tough time to try and build non-profit housing for a fixed price. The Developer tries to put a brave face on it, saying, “Although beset with market challenges beyond our control, we are very proud of Framework's achievements and the new standards we've established for the use of CLT in the U.S."

forest benefitsLever Architecture/via

But really, this is a huge setback for tall wood in North America. There were so many attributes to admire in this project -- the way it was promoting the local timber, increasing density, sequestering carbon, and helping create an entire new industry around cross-laminated timber. What a shame.

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