From a distance, the building under construction at 843 N. Spring St. in Chinatown might appear like many of the commercial structures emerging in LA: Four floors of open-plan offices rise above ground-level retail space that will one day house restaurants and Businesses. However, get closer and you’ll discover some surprising details, including a ground-floor arcaded walkway dotted with rugged tree ferns and a rooftop terrace planted with foxtail agaves and verbena. Most notable, however, is wood—namely everywhere.
Look up and you’ll see that the building’s floor panels are partially supported by wide solid wood panels, the generic term for a variety of industrial and engineered wood. 843 N. Spring is part of a wave of such structures emerging across the United States. In Milwaukee you can find a new one 25-storey residential tower made of solid wood, and a forestry school in Oregon now inhabits a pair graceful solid wood building.
It may seem counterintuitive, but solid wood can match or even exceed the strength of concrete and steel. Also counter-intuitive: the material withstands a fire well. (Just as a large log cannot ignite in a campfire, solid wood’s strength is not conducive to a quick fire.) And indeed, it has undergone a battery of tests both in the United States and abroad explosion tests which made it possible for the military to use them.
Thomas Robinson, co-founder of lever architecture, A company with offices in Portland, Oregon and LA that pioneered the use of solid wood in the United States says, “It’s very different than what you buy at Home Depot.”
Lever’s projects include solid wood buildings for Adidas and that Oregon Conservation Center in Portland. The team is also behind the thoughtful design of 843 N. Spring, which includes landscaping by James Corner Field Operations (the studio behind the remarkable). Tongva Park in Santa Monica).
Currently, 843 N. Spring is probably the largest solid wood structure in Los Angeles, but could soon be surpassed a mixed-use settlement on the border of Culver City and West Adams, designed by Shop Architects. Regardless of its size, the building is a fascinating example of the possibilities of the material.
Trees bind carbon and, unlike concrete and steel, do not require complex manufacturing processes – they just grow. A 2019 study published in Civil Engineering Journal, The study examined the use of bulk wood from harvest to construction and found an average reduction in global warming potential of 26.5%. Solid wood is also manufactured in prefabricated panels, meaning it can be milled to a project’s specific dimensions, limiting waste, preparation and construction times. If a solid wood building is demolished, wood can be reused. Concrete isn’t nearly as flexible: when it hits the wrecking ball, it usually ends up in landfill.
Of course, just because it’s wood isn’t eco-friendly. Clearcutting, for example, is devastating for the local ecology. “Part of our job is asking the right questions,” says Robinson. “They’re really trying to identify forests that are being managed in a way that considers truly sustainable forest practices over the long term.”
Lever prefers wood that has received sustainability certifications from the EU Forest Stewardship Council, including the wood used in the Spring Street project. Transport to the construction site is also crucial. The wood for the building was harvested in British Columbia and transported to LA by ship less CO2 intensive than transporting it by land.
The Spring Street building is a hybrid construction, meaning it still uses steel and concrete. However, this is mitigated by other elements in the design.
Instead of demolishing the vacant wholesale market on the site, the architects built on top of it, thereby avoiding additional emissions and demolition waste. On top of the existing underground parking lot, they added a stacked parking lot, making room for more cars without having to do any more digging, and—more importantly—a generous storage area for bikes. (The building sits practically above the A-Line Chinatown station, making it an ideal hub for multimodal mass transit.) Unusually for a commercial building, the design also places great emphasis on fresh air: Each unit has operable windows and sliding doors, which allow access passive ventilation.
No building can be carbon-free – building consumes resources. However, the process can be far less carbon intensive. And as 843 N. Spring also proves, it can look really good.