EVERETT — The echo of the hammer was deafening on Wednesday.
A carpenter swung it as hard as he could atop the roof of a new home, each bang reverberating throughout a warehouse on the Everett waterfront.
He teamed up last week with a handful of American and Swiss carpenters to build the nation’s first “modular home” made of cross-laminated timber, a material heralded as the future of environmentally sustainable construction.
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 expected to create more than 150 family-wage jobs. It should break ground next year, according to Forterra, the Seattle nonprofit that has partnered with the city of Darrington and Snohomish County to develop the project.
The innovation center is part of Forterra’s “Forest to Home” initiative, an effort to create more affordable housing using local workers and local timber.
Modular homes are made of small, pre-fabricated units that snap together like Legos. The units can be configured to make a quaint two-story house in the countryside, or a large multi-family complex in the city.
“Think about it as a high-quality version of IKEA furniture,” said Michelle Connor, CEO and president of Forterra.
Specifically, she said, modular homes can be one way to address housing for families. Building two-bedroom homes can be expensive, she said, so often families are left out of the equation in affordable housing projects.
Tobias Levey, vice president of transactions for Forterra, said modular homes can save on costs through less labor, fewer middlemen and competitively priced materials.
Once the wood innovation center is up and running, Levey said, workers can then make modular homes at scale, effectively lowering the price. At that point, he expects the modular homes to be significantly cheaper than many affordable homes built today.
Moreover, Levey said, timber will be sourced locally. He emphasized that Forterra will not rely on clear-cut timber.
Cross-laminated timber is a type of mass timber. Sometimes called “super plywood,” it’s a strong, low-carbon alternative to concrete and steel built by sandwiching multiple solid wood panels together.
“It’s an engineered product that has a high degree of consistency and precision,” Connor said.
Calling it “a chance to tie our communities together,” she said mass timber makes sense in Washington, a state known for building planes and ships, as well as its rich natural resources.
Connor noted other parts of the world, like Canada and Europe, have been using the material for years, but so far the United States has been a late adopter.
Strides are being made.
Washington was recently the first state in the country to adopt code standards for buildings up to 18 stories. There aren’t any wooden skyscrapers in Washington yet, but they exist elsewhere.
Connor said one of Forterra’s goals is to address any barriers that might prevent a broader adoption of mass timber.
The modules being built last week at the Everett warehouse will be used as demonstrations. They’ll travel around so communities can see for themselves what the buzz is all about.
“I think we can expect to see a rapid uptick of this product as it comes into the market,” Connor said.
The Darrington Wood Innovation Center is the result of years of planning.
Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin has said that he dreamt about the center in the aftermath of the devastating 2014 Oso mudslide. He hopes the center will bring economic stability to the rural town amid a decline in the local timber industry.
“I want to see a job base that allows people to live, work and play right here at home where they don’t feel like they have to commute out of the valley to have successful and meaningful work,” Rankin previously told The Daily Herald.
Soon, his dreams may become reality.