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How speakers at an architectural conference changed the design of a mixed-use building now under construction in WDM


An aerial photo of the mass timber project under construction at 304 Fifth St. in West Des Moines. Photo special to the Business Record


About two years ago, architect Daniel Willrich attended a national convention where he heard several speakers extol the benefits of using mass timber in projects instead of steel and traditional stick lumber.

Willrich, director of architecture/business development for Pelds Design Services in Des Moines, was so excited about what he heard at the conference that when he returned to Iowa, he shared what he learned with developer Scott Cutler.

“The speakers talked a lot about why it’s a good building material not only for the aesthetics it brings to a project but environmental sustainability that’s inherent in it,” Willrich said. “I shared that with Scott … we dug into it a little more and he decided to redesign the project [we were working on together] with mass timber.”

Before Cutler made a final decision on whether to use the material in a mixed-use project he planned to build at 304 Fifth St. in West Des Moines, he and wife Molly Cutler drove to Oregon to visit the family-owned sawmill that produces the product.

Freres Engineered Wood is a “very innovative company and jumped out in front of the pack to develop this type of mass timber,” Molly Cutler said. “This particular type of mass timber has a lot less waste of the wood, and you can actually calculate how much carbon is getting sequestered.”

When they returned from the trip, the green light was given to use mass timber in the project planned for 304 Fifth St.

“The change in appearance was just aesthetic,” Willrich said. “But it was a full redesign for our structural engineer.”

Mass timber is a new category of wood product that comprises multiple layers of young timber that are nailed or glued together. The compressed wood forms structurally sound and load-bearing material that can be panelized for construction (i.e., built in a factory rather than on-site). The finished product is strong but more lightweight than concrete or steel columns, beams or panels.

The use of mass timber products can be more cost- and time-efficient than steel, concrete or traditional lumber products, Willrich and Scott Cutler said. Much of the lumber used in the building under construction at 304 Fifth St. was prefabricated off-site, they said.

“The building tends to go up faster because the pieces are milled to exact specifications,” Willrich said. “It’s like a big puzzle. It goes up quicker because it’s lighter than moving steel around and it takes fewer people to get the work done.”

The project is believed to be the first mass timber development in Iowa to include residences. The state’s first mass timber project is located at 111 E. Grand Ave. in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood.

Not all of the wood in the project is mass timber, Scott Cutler said. Much of the interior framing was built with traditional wood studs. “This project is more of a hybrid mass timber project.”

The Valley Junction development was the first in Iowa to receive an award from the U.S. Forest Service’s Wood Innovations Grant. The project received a $243,035 grant in 2021.

A building permit valued at $1.8 million was issued for the project in August 2021. Construction is expected to be completed in December. The three-story, 13,617-square-foot building includes commercial and office space and 11 apartment units.

Cutler bought the property in January 2021, which included a two-story house described as being in “below normal” condition by the Polk County Assessor’s Office. The house’s basement was described as being in “very poor” condition.

A majority of the city’s Plan and Zoning Commission could not agree on whether to support Cutler’s project. The City Council ultimately gave the project the green light to move forward. The house was razed and the project moved forward.

Cutler said he’ll likely use mass timber products in future development projects.

“We are excited about this project and hope we can share our learnings and knowledge with others to help them better understand the benefits of mass timber,” he said.

Learn more about the project at 304 Fifth St. in West Des Moines in an upcoming edition of the Business Record.

Photo above: Wood beams made of mass timber can be seen on the ceilings of the building under construction at 304 Fifth St. Photo special to the Business Record

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