The future of affordable housing? Innovative home built in Everett

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EVERETT – The hammer’s echo was deafening on Wednesday.

A carpenter swung it as hard as he could on the roof of a new house, and every bang echoed through a warehouse on the Everett waterfront.

He teamed up with a handful of American and Swiss carpenters last week to build the nation’s first “modular house” out of cross laminated timber, a material heralded as the future of environmentally sustainable building.

The scene was a sign of what’s to come at the Darrington Wood Innovation Center, a $ 55 million, 94-acre campus that will house advanced wood manufacturers and promote education and conservation. The center is to create more than 150 family jobs. Groundbreaking is scheduled for next year, according to Forterra, the Seattle nonprofit that has partnered with the City of Darrington and Snohomish Counties to develop the project.

The innovation center is part of the Forterra “Forest to Home” initiative, which aims to create affordable living space with local workers and local wood.

Modular houses are made up of small, prefabricated units that snap together like Legos. The units can be configured into a quaint two story country house or a large apartment building in the city.

“Think of it as a high quality version of IKEA furniture,” said Michelle Connor, CEO and President of Forterra.

In particular, she said, modular homes could be one way of addressing family living space. Two-bedroom homes can be expensive to build, she said, often leaving families out of the equation on affordable housing projects.

A view of a cross laminated timber modular house under construction in a warehouse on Marine View Drive in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Tobias Levey, Vice President of Transactions at Forterra, said modular homes can save costs with less labor, fewer middlemen and materials at competitive prices.

Once the wood innovation center is up and running, Levey says workers will be able to build modular homes on a large scale, which is effectively lowering the price. At this point in time, he expects the modular homes to be significantly cheaper than many of the affordable homes being built today.

In addition, Levey says, the wood is sourced locally. He stressed that Forterra would not rely on Kahlholz.

Cross laminated timber is a type of solid wood. Sometimes referred to as “super plywood,” it is a strong, low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel, made by joining several sheets of solid wood together.

“It’s a technical product with a high degree of consistency and precision,” said Connor.

Calling it “a chance to bind our communities together,” she said, bulk timber makes sense in Washington, a state known for building planes and ships and for its rich natural resources.

Connor noted that other parts of the world, such as Canada and Europe, have been using the material for years, but the United States has been a late adopter so far.

Steps are being taken.

Washington recently became the first state in the country to introduce code standards for buildings up to 18 stories tall. There are no wooden skyscrapers in Washington yet, but there are elsewhere.

Connor said one of Forterra’s goals is to remove any obstacles that could prevent solid wood from becoming more widely adopted.

Jenae Poe (left) and Cheri Marusa from Foretrra examine panels for a modular cross-laminated timber house in a warehouse on Marine View Drive in Everett.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jenae Poe (left) and Cheri Marusa from Foretrra examine panels for a modular cross-laminated timber house in a warehouse on Marine View Drive in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The modules being built at Everett’s warehouse last week will be used as demonstrations. You will be traveling around so the communities can see for themselves what the buzz is all about.

“I think we can expect this product to take off quickly when it hits the market,” said Connor.

The Darrington Wood Innovation Center is the result of years of planning.

Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin said he dreamed of the center after the devastating Oso mudslide in 2014. He hopes that the center of the rural city will bring economic stability to the decline of the local timber industry.

“I want a job base that enables people to live, work and play right here at home, where they don’t have the feeling of having to commute from the valley in order to have a successful and meaningful job,” said Rankin previously told The Daily Herald.

Soon his dreams could come true.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; [email protected] Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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