Spokane is now home to Washington’s first-ever office building constructed from a novel alternative to concrete and steel that proponents say has the potential to slow climate change.

Wood.

To be precise, cross-laminated timber, a buzzy building material that’s been in vogue in Europe for decades but has just started to catch on in the United States as permitting codes change to allow for larger wooden projects.

The timber comes in sheets and beams, produced by binding layers of wooden planks with adhesive. Advocates tout cross-laminated timber as an environmentally sustainable alternative to concrete and steel, which generate large quantities of greenhouse gases in their production. 

Katerra, a venture-capital-backed construction startup out of Menlo Park, recently wrapped up construction on the five-story, cross-laminated timber Catalyst Building, 150,000 square feet of offices occupied primarily by Eastern Washington University.

Catalyst is a net-zero building, according to Katerra, meaning the carbon dioxide absorbed by the trees in the wooden walls, floors and beams offsets the greenhouse gases used in the building construction. In the future, the building will be equipped with solar panels and rainwater catchment to further minimize its carbon footprint.

In Seattle, more cross-laminated timber projects may be sprouting soon, though the pandemic has throttled much future development. A timber hotel in Ballard still plans to break ground in the next three years, the developer said. Two timber Capitol Hill apartment buildings are in permitting. And Katerra plans to use the material in a new 243-unit apartment complex in Shoreline.

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Environmentalists have said green materials like cross-laminated timber are crucial to slowing the progress of climate change. Because it can be used in prefabricated developments, builders say cross-laminated timber could play a role in getting offices and apartments up more quickly and cheaply.

Katerra has bet big on the stuff. Its 270,000-square-foot factory for cross-laminated timber in Spokane, opened last September, is the largest in North America. Even as it laid off staff in June to “streamline parts of our operational and support organizations and scale back certain investment programs,” according to a statement from CEO Paal Kibsgaard, the $150 million factory kept humming.

The company, though, has been dogged by criticisms that it’s more interested in getting buildings up fast than doing them right.

A Seattle Times investigation in May found workers kept swinging hammers on a conventional Katerra multifamily housing project in Kirkland during a coronavirus lockdown that paused nonessential construction, even though a plumber on the site tested positive for COVID-19. The company said it had obtained all necessary permissions to continue work.

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