Mississippi Workshop by Waechter Architecture is Oregon’s first all-timber commercial building, and it is a three-story, 9,555-square-foot structure. Photo: Lara Swimmer

Waechter Architecture Has An Expanded Vision for Mass Timber

Through its applied research on all-mass-timber construction, Waechter Architecture designs with simplicity in mind. 

Mississippi Workshop: A Mass Timber Research Testbed

Mass Timber has been a core part of Waechter Architecture’s (WA) practice over the past decade. The Portland, Oregon–based firm has been studying and developing projects to expand knowledge of this increasingly popular material in the region and test its construction efficiencies, energy performance, and cultural and market adoption across design typologies. WA’s research on mass timber architecture received a grant from the USDA/U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovations Program, with additional support from the Softwood Lumber Board.

The firm’s studio space, the Mississippi Workshop, is a three-story prefabricated mass timber structure designed, developed, and built by WA as a test bed for its in-house all-wood construction research. The building is the first commercial project in Oregon to use mass timber construction for all building components. Except for the sheathed metal exterior and the integrated radiant concrete flooring, the firm used exposed wood for all surfaces, purposely avoiding hybrid systems. “The idea with this building was to do a modern and high-tech building, but also a primitive one,” says the firm’s founding partner Ben Waechter.

Waechter Architecture founding architect Ben Waechter’s residence occupies the third floor. The second floor houses the design studio, while the ground level features a coffee shop, bike storage, makerspaces, and public areas that open to a courtyard, forming a semi-private civic space for informal gatherings. Photo: Arthur Hitchcock
Photo: Arthur Hitchcock

An Stubborn Approach to Mass Timber Design

This building has helped WA confirm early design assumptions and address challenges along the way. “It’s a really tight envelope, with a tilt-up system with panels that go from the foundation to the roof with no horizontal breaks in the wall, so there’s no air leakage,” Waechter says. “There’s a concern with having systems so fully integrated into the body of a building. Because the power, data, and mechanical systems are going to fail at some point.” This reality led them to rethink future iterations more like “primitive vessels” that, through their rational simplicity, allow maximum spatial and systems flexibility.

Another exciting breakthrough was in fire protection. Coordinating with Code Unlimited as a code and fire protection consultant, WA created new fire protection details to avoid the mandatory hybrid system requirements as fire retardants, creating new opportunities to expand local construction codes. “This was not just for this project but for future mass timber projects,” says Waechter. WA and Codes Unlimited together proved that the mass timber and wood-on-wood alone were enough to limit the spread of fire and that joints met construction criteria. “I think Waechter took a uniquely stubborn stance of what wood can do, and even with pressure put on code and structure to achieve that aesthetic experience, it turned out it was doable,” Will Smith, a project lead at WA.

The studio’s in-house research led to a taxonomy of structural approaches for all-wood buildings. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture
For their final projects, University of Oregon Design Studio students prioritized singular systems to achieve more integrated built results. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture

Learning Architecture from a Singular Material Research

The studio’s research-based design approach also helped it develop an all-timber structural components taxonomy. Divided into standard scenarios, the classification system is further defined by three main categories: the exterior structure at the envelope of the building, the inner structure throughout the floor plate, and the horizontal structure that supports the floor plate. WA took this exercise and translated it into an architecture studio at the University of Oregon, inviting its students to develop a project by choosing a single system. “In many of our projects, we aim to avoid hybrid systems in general. So, not having columns and then walls and then cores, but picking an approach for the architectural production of a building benefits the understanding of design as an integrated architectural system,” says Smith.

Now WA is developing a series of speculative design exercises to incorporate these structural and mechanical system taxonomies in all-wood projects. The hope is to create a multitude of typologies to demonstrate the material’s versatility within different constraints and to expand the notion of primitive specificity in architectural design by truly understanding the wide range of possibilities of all-wood architecture. As Waechter puts it, “The ambition or the idea is that there could be a world where we perfect what the building is made out of. Where what changes from project to project is really form and composition, that it’s a result of just trying to create experientially clear spaces that have a heft even though we’re building out of framing material.”

For an all-wood speculative design series, the studio made an infill housing type with platform structures creating shifting openings for ground-floor bedrooms and upper-floor living spaces, along with shared gardens and courtyards beneath upper patios. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture and Arte Factory Lab
Another project featured an all-wood office building with a cassette structure that spans and cantilevers beyond platform cores for rapid construction. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture and Arte Factory Lab
Speculative construction for a new All-Wood assembly building: a tilt up structure allows for pre-construction of assembly before pulling up into place. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture and Arte Factory Lab
The large interior space created by the tilt up structure and perforated roof diaphragm can provide for a variety of potential programs. Courtesy: Waechter Architecture and Arte Factory Lab

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