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The future of housing is here ...

and it's made of timber


Peter Rose + Partners  |  June 2020

Harnessing new construction technologies toward higher quality, more equitable housing

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At Peter Rose + Partners, we believe research is not an activity preceding design, but rather one that is integral to it. We are currently focusing on the role we can play in addressing two of the world’s most pressing issues: the climate emergency and the housing affordability crisis. With mass timber already seeing widespread use in Europe, and set to become a mainstream construction system in the United States under the 2021 International Building Code, our team is looking ahead to understand the expansive possibilities the material will bring to the production of low-cost, quality, and sustainable multi-family housing. 

What does responsibly designed housing look like?

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Housing today is faced with several converging issues: rents take up ever-increasing portions of personal income; original residents of neighborhoods are pushed further and further to the fringes of cities as non-inclusive gentrification runs its course; buildings are often cheaply made, showing signs of deterioration after even just a few years.  As architects, we have a responsibility to address inequities in the built environment.  We believe all housing should be affordable, sustainable, and community-driven.  A responsibly designed city is one where residents are not only not burdened with pollution, but one where citizens’ active participation is encouraged - not hindered - by design.  Affordable, human-centered housing is a key ingredient for a vibrant city.

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Top and above: Kripalu Housing

In the design for housing at the Kripalu Campus in the Berkshire Mountains, Peter Rose + Partners foregrounded views to the surrounding landscape while integrating climate control strategies including natural ventilation, radiant heating / cooling, and sun shading - all contributing to users’ comfort and significant savings in building operation costs.  Urban designs for Helsinki and Somerville, MA proposed long-lasting resiliency strategies for their respective cities, emphasizing sustainability, flexibility, connectivity and density. 

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Low2No (carbon) Helsinki Masterplan

Housing supply is low, rents are unaffordable

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As rents skyrocket relative to income, the low supply of housing has become a formidable barrier to more affordable housing.  One often overlooked contributing factor in the inability of supply to meet rising global demand for urban housing is the lack of innovation in the construction industry.  Since the 1960s, productivity in the manufacturing industry has seen dramatic increases.  From old industries like automobile production to the new industries of Silicon Valley, assembly lines have been revolutionized with the use of robotics and logistical innovations.  Meanwhile, productivity in the construction industry has remained flat since 1960, and more recently the supply of housing units has remained below 60% of pre-2008 levels.  Without innovative steps to increase the construction industry’s levels of productivity, housing costs will continue to rise as demand is unable to be met.

Source: Smith, Ryan E. Prefab Architecture, Figure 4.2. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley 2010

Source: US Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development, Institute for Building Technology and Safety

The planet is heating up

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Image credit: istock images

Annually, the building industry generates 40% of global CO2 emissions. 11% of those emissions come directly from the manufacture and transportation of building materials (with the manufacture of concrete and steel each contributing 5% of global emissions), and from the construction of buildings.   And with many of the world’s most populous cities located on coasts, climate change will only deepen the housing availability and affordability crisis. 

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Mass timber: a new, old material

Engineered Timber - also referred to as Mass Timber - is both groundbreaking and traditional.  Engineered timber beams, columns and slabs maximize wood’s structural performance while maintaining the familiarity and workability of the age-old material.  Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) is a type of mass timber produced by laminating perpendicular layers of wood boards into large sheets, typically up to 10 feet wide.

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Because panels are cut and formatted off-site there is a higher degree of control than is typical.

Reduced Labor.
Easy assembly with standard connections allows on-site labor to be dramatically reduced.


Increased Speed
Greater precision and off-site formatting increases speed of assembly and opens the door for greater use of pre-fabrication methods.


Light Weight.
With comparable strength to concrete, CLT is only a fraction of the weight per cubic unit.

Whereas steel and concrete are some of the greatest carbon emitters on the planet, CLT has a low carbon footprint. Because it is a solid wood product, CLT stores more carbon than it emits in production.


With CLT serving as both structure and an exposed finish material, the texture and aroma of wood can add a strong sense of atmosphere to interior spaces.

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A mass timber solution to housing

Modular, mass timber housing.  As a highly precise and easily formatted material, mass timber makes modular construction a viable method for mainstream use.  Based on processes already being used in Germany, we have developed a series of prototypes examining the potential of mass timber in constructing modular multi-family structures.

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Structure and finish.  CLT panels are structural elements, but unlike framing can be left exposed as a finish material, saving on the need for labor to install materials like gypsum board and paint, and creating a unique interior environment.  

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Housing made to go.  Modular construction allows for modular volumes to be fitted out with mechanical, electric and plumbing systems, fixtures and finishes away from the construction site in a controlled factory setting.  

Image credit: Kaufman Bausysteme

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Three modules assembled form a one bedroom apartment.

Stacking it up.  Contrary to the typical construction site with overlapping trades and complex coordination, the erection of the building becomes a simple matter of stacking up modules and connecting them to site infrastructure.   

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