A look into Southern Florida’s growing timber culture

Mass Making in Miami

A look into Southern Florida’s growing timber culture

The interior of the structure showcases the Southern Yellow Pine CLT wall assembly. The architectural grade SYP wall and roof panels were manufactured regionally in Dothan, Alabama by SmartLam. (Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)

Miami-Dade County is known for its art deco buildings, subtropical climate, and a youthful exuberance ready to embrace the moment as exemplified by Maurizio Cattelan’s 2019 Banana at Art Basel. Miami-Dade is also notorious for hurricanes, looming sea level rise, and pioneering rigorous structural building codes coined the “Dade County Code” that set global standards for High Velocity Hurricane Zones [HVHZ]. These high standards have branded Miami as one of the most complicated cities to build in when employing traditional or accepted methods, disregarding innovative approaches perceived as ‘newness.’

Art, urbanism, policy-making; the Miami culture thrives on challenging the how of things. The confluence of creative, practical, and impending environmental forces lay heavy on South Florida as the once distant future becomes the present. The pressing question facing Miami-Dade is, can the city embrace changes to building policies and foster innovation to construction assemblies that focus on energy and the environment?

The Wood Basket, an unlikely protagonist

The mass timber market, and infrastructure, is expanding across North America, moving south from Canada into the Pacific Northwest and finally arriving in the Southeast in U.S. Forestry Region Eight—a.k.a. “The Wood Basket.” Still an adolescent in mass timber, the region is struggling to find an identity. Current dialogues in [mass] timber, specifically professor Kiel Moe’s AN op-ed in March, acknowledge embedded characteristics in place, climate, forest, and tree species, and emphasize the role of these conditions in building and building practices. Embracing these ideas of locale and territory, the wood basket is composed of Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) (a generic term for the four most common pine species: Loblolly (Pinus taeda), Longleaf (Pinus palustris), Shortleaf (Pinus echinata), and Slash (Pinus elliottii)) and in recent years has produced 63 percent of the total timber volume harvested in the United States. Southern Yellow Pine has entered the arena with a structural building agenda as well as a material aesthetic geologically unique to the Southeast.

A map of timber production across the us
A map of the spatial comparison of forest-to-city through the lens of U.S. Forest Region Eight. (Courtesy the University of Miami School of Architecture LU_Lab)
A map of forest and mill locations across the southeast us
The map highlights the quantities and locations of mills in relation to the forest in Region Eight. (Courtesy University of Miami School of Architecture LU_Lab)

Four years ago in 2017, the first cross-laminated timber (CLT) manufacturing facility sourcing SYP in the Southeastern United States went into production. The development of a PRG-320 certified SYP panel was a big step towards a viable mass timber product that is regionally sourced and produced—a new material language to be explored, molded, and constructed.

With the implementation of the CLT manufacturing in the Southeast Wood Basket, all the components of a mass timber infrastructure are now regionally located, reinforcing a localized construction ecology. The growing of trees, managing forest growth and health, harvesting timber, milling and the creation of mass timber products define a concentrated system boundary–that is if the Southeast can commit to building with wood. Consider the alternative narrative for the Southeast: A dependency on trees grown, milled, and processed in Europe, hauled by truck to port, shipped across the ocean and again trucked to the construction site, greatly expands the footprint of the construction ecology. Sadly, this is a competitive route as seen through an economic lens, but it is often extremely out of balance when viewed through the lens of energetics, regional construction ecologies, and carbon. Vital to the mission of the mass timber agenda is to develop the nascent American mass timber infrastructure, affirming realities of carbon and energy in addition to economics. Setting an architectural agenda for materials that are regionally grown and processed requires regional building needs.

The Sunshine State

The dark horse amongst the Southeast is Florida. A state covered with over fifty percent forested area, in 2019 Florida contributed 514,739 thousand cubic feet [MCF] of timber products; this raw-material resource is a potential economic, cultural, and environmental driver for the state. Even with available regional wood resources, the majority of the structures erected remain committed to cementitious building products. As of today, the majority of the wood fiber harvested and processed for commercial use is exported as pulp and pellet. Florida is equipped to lead with forests as a renewable building resource; the impending hurdle in getting Florida forests to build Florida buildings are needed innovations in Florida State building codes, specifically within the HVHZ.

As most of the United States adopts codes to build with mass timber, Florida, in particular Miami-Dade County is the last frontier to be explored, and the final task is to make with mass timber.

(This triptych is a representation of upstream cycles of building products; as architects we are responsible for understanding the material behavior and systems as a raw resource to better understand the material’s behavior as a building product.
(Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)

Building The Agenda

In 2019, the University of Miami School of Architecture’s Littoral Urbanism Lab [LU_Lab] set out to build a new material agenda for Miami: A culture of renewable material resources, using wood in Miami and Florida. With the award of a USDA U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovation Grant, “All That is Solid, Platforms for Wood Innovation,” a team was established to develop and deliver educational initiatives, fostering a knowledge network across Miami and Florida. Specific agendas focused on the development of mass timber building methodologies and adapting building policies specific to Miami Dade’s HVHZ, the country’s only subtropical urban network.

As the network of industry partners came together, it became evident the true test of the viability of SYP cross-laminated timber in Florida would be to learn-through-doing, and something had to be built. The LU_Lab, an academic venture, formed a collaboration with Atelier Mey, a think-and-do design practice in Miami which positions the agenda within a larger project of pragmatic and projective design thinking. Realizing the first mass timber project in Miami committed the project team to addressing the hurdles of building with wood in the HVHZ, finding answers to these questions and implementing the solutions. Through this academic/practice partnership, a national knowledge network of manufacturers, mass timber builders, engineers, and policy makers worked together to develop a process that tuned the CLT elements to the relentless South Florida environmental forces such as high-wind impact resistance, and lamella adhesion.

Constructing the Building

The project currently being realized, House In A Garden, is a single-family residence, a one-story structure in the heart of Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood. Slated for completion this December, the CLT portion was erected earlier this June. At 1,800 square feet, the scale of the first project submitted to the city of Miami and Miami Dade County was critical. However, the project still embodies all the components of building, detailing, and material language resolution: A foundation, walls, roof, and apertures, but at a scale palatable for county and city code reviewers to encounter mass timber construction methodologies, specifically CLT, for the first time and work together to understand its position within the HVHZ building code. The entire structure was erected in only two days. Day one concluded with working through site logistics, thunderstorms, and the installation of 15-of-the-19 wall panels. On day two, the remaining four wall panels and all eight roof panels were installed.

CLT panels being craned into place
Day one of CLT installation required re-configuring of site logistics and the craning and installation of 16 of the 22 wall panels. (Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)
A man atop a tall timber panel in florida
The CLT installation team, led by Daniel Wirth from Minimal Impact Engineering, prepares with Chris Meyer of Atelier Mey Architects for the installation of the first roof panel. (Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)
Florida timber being craned into place on a construction site
Day two of CLT installation. The remaining four wall panels were craned into place and all eight of the roof panels and glulam beams were craned and fastened. Shown here is the last roof panel being craned into place. (Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)

The innovative envelope assembly exploited CLT’s thermal performance and pre-manufactured precision processing to reduce construction timelines by streamlining the erection phase. The off-site digital pre-fabrication and on-site logistical coordination was an amazing two-day success. During the design phase, the design team worked closely with regional manufacturers, structural engineers, and modeled thermal analyses to develop innovative strategies to reduce material, energy, and carbon generation.

Asserting wood as the sole structural element re-establishes the connection between regional ecologies and renewable material resources through solid wood building products. House In A Garden is committed to the use of Southern Yellow Pine, sourced in-state and manufactured in the southeast, materials regionally grown and processed for regional needs.

The goal of this initiative was to construct a healthy and environmentally responsible building from regional resources and labor. The process proved to be an exercise in untangling decades of reactionary building policies, and longstanding traditions which for those working in the mass timber arena will not be surprising. The fear of new building processes somehow outweighs the fear of a vastly grim future directly related to currently unsustainable building practices. In the physical aspect of building, House In A Garden addresses antiquated building policies to accept emergent material assemblies- extending the forest of North Florida in a very real way into Miami.

A timber courtyard
The embedded digital fabrication of the CLT manufacturing process allows for the customization of the form and shape of each panel. Pictured here is the rounding and seaming of the roof panels to form the overhang of the exterior courtyard. (Courtesy Atelier Mey Architects)

Buildings are the product of policies. It is imperative our policies reflect a conscious and responsible architecture. It should no longer be acceptable to look the other way merely because looking at our reality will force us into addressing the long-standing problems reinforced through our complicit behaviors. Bringing the small-in-scale, large-in-impact project to the Miami-Dade County building department charted a course into uncharted.

The construction of one building in Miami-Dade County is more than a shift from one material to another, or from one construction technique to another, but instead aims to connect the entire system, from Forest to Building.

Chris Meyer, AIA is a practicing architect and principal of Atelier Mey, the director of the LU_Lab, and an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture. His partner, Shawna Meyer, AIA is a principal at Atelier Mey and a collaborator with the LU_Lab.