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Unlocking Affordable Mass Timber Housing: Lessons from Cutler Development

Summary of Cutler Development

Cutler Development, a small-scale urban infill developer based in Des Moines, Iowa, has been at the forefront of transforming affordable housing through the innovative use of mass timber. Led by the visionary duo of Molly and Scott Cutler, the company has developed a blueprint for making mass timber construction financially feasible, even for projects targeting residents earning between 30% to 80% of the area's median income.

Cutler Development's mission is to create projects that better neighborhoods, society, and the environment. Their focus on urban infill, walkable communities, and affordable housing aligns perfectly with the sustainability and durability benefits of mass timber construction. Through their journey, they have uncovered a wealth of lessons and best practices that they are eager to share with others looking to incorporate mass timber into their affordable housing projects.

Backing into Mass Timber

Cutler Development's foray into mass timber was somewhat serendipitous. On their first mass timber project, the Junction Lofts, the team had already completed the design and capital stack when their architect mentioned attending a presentation on the benefits of mass timber. Intrigued, Molly and Scott decided to retroactively redesign the building to incorporate mass timber, which came with its own set of challenges but also unlocked a range of benefits.

One of the key lessons they learned was the importance of designing for mass timber from the very beginning. Retrofitting an existing design can be more costly and time-consuming than starting with mass timber in mind. This lesson was applied to their second project, the Star Lofts, where they were able to optimize the design for mass timber from the outset.

Overcoming Challenges and Unlocking Savings

Cutler Development has developed a "top 10" list of strategies they share with anyone interested in making mass timber affordable housing pencil, especially for smaller-scale projects. Some of the key lessons include:

Leveraging Relationships and Resources

  • Tapping into the mass timber community, which is often open to sharing information and resources

  • Partnering with organizations like WoodWorks, who provided invaluable support in navigating insurance, code, and supplier connections

Value Engineering and Design Optimization

  • Identifying opportunities to reduce material volumes, such as using thinner roof decking

  • Implementing a hybrid mass timber and dimension lumber design, strategically placing partition walls to optimize the span of mass timber decking and eliminate the need for columns on upper floors

Embracing Durability and Reduced Finishes

  • Leveraging the inherent durability of mass timber to reduce the need for costly finishes like drywall, paint, and carpeting

  • Exposing concrete, sprinkler lines, and electrical conduits to further minimize finish costs

Navigating the Ecosystem

Cutler Development has also learned the importance of engaging with the mass timber supply chain early in the design process. Identifying the right manufacturer and understanding their specific product dimensions is crucial to optimizing the design and avoiding costly redesigns later on.

Additionally, Cutler Development has found success in connecting with other mass timber developers and project teams, both locally and nationally. By touring completed projects and reaching out to fellow developers, they have gained invaluable insights and inspiration to apply to their own work.

Looking Ahead: Sustainability and Certification

Cutler Development's commitment to sustainability extends beyond the use of mass timber. On their latest project, the Star Lofts, they are pursuing the International Living Future Institute's Zero Carbon Certification, which requires a comprehensive approach to reducing embodied and operational carbon emissions.

As Cutler Development continues to push the boundaries of affordable mass timber housing, they remain dedicated to sharing their knowledge and experiences with the broader industry. By collaborating with others and leveraging the growing mass timber community, they hope to inspire more developers to explore this transformative building material and unlock the benefits for their own affordable housing projects.

Ready to get the tools, resources and partners to work on more mass timber projects?

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