With timber in port, INTRO begins its rise to become the country’s tallest all-wood building

The 3,000 cubic meters of Austrian wood spent nearly three weeks on the Atlantic, riding the seaway into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, through Montreal and Niagara, 53 miles across Lake Ontario and, finally, on Monday, November 9, into the Port of Cleveland receptor dock on the edge of the city.

After the 22-day journey that began in Fügen, Austria, the timber’s now set to reach its ultimate destination: the bustling residential construction site at the intersection of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue.

This isn’t just any old crate-load of European log.

<span class="content-image-text">Rendering of the 115-foot tall, 288-unit residential property dubbed INTRO plans to ride the surge in Cleveland’s luxury real estate.</span>Rendering of the 115-foot tall, 288-unit residential property dubbed INTRO plans to ride the surge in Cleveland’s luxury real estate.The first third of timber—all pre-measured, pre-cut, and pre-glued with a special laminate—will, by next summer, assemble to be the tallest building in the country composed entirely out of wood.

The planned complex—a 115-foot tall, 288-unit residential property dubbed INTRO—the latest from Chicago-based Harbor Bay Real Estate, plans to ride the surge in Cleveland’s luxury real estate, despite COVID-19, while aiming high, from a developer standpoint.

“We began this project knowing that we were going to be different,” says Dan Whalen, the 32-year-old vice president of design and development for Harbor Bay.

After studying recent feats of engineering across Europe and the U.S., Whalen knew that whatever INTRO would be known for, that characteristic would have to make the project worthy of historic landmark status—which predominantly lies in its material.

“We didn’t know what that would be at first,” he says. “And then we thought, ‘If our building’s still here in 50 years, what are people going to say about it?’ Timber helps us bring that to fruition.”

As a native Clevelander entrenched in the “oversaturated” Chicago real estate industry for the past seven years, Whalen is both a realist and a progressive when it comes to material set to make up the 505,000-square-foot, nine-story complex with a construction price of $144 million.

In September 2018, when Whalen and his team began the infant stages of systematically convincing officials within the Cleveland Department of Building & Housing and the Cleveland Fire Department that an all-wood complex is 100% fire-resistant, he was unsure how pricey (and risky) such a proof-of-concept would be.

After 18 months of data and engineering tests, $200,000, and a revision of Cleveland’s outdated code (to allow “an alternatively engineered design”), Whalen says he feels that the move-arounds are in part an advancement of Midwestern design—not just a new complex.

“And they’ll all see, when rubber hits the road,” Whalen says. “Everyone will see what we’re talking about.”

<span class="content-image-text">INTRO under construction in Ohio City.</span>INTRO under construction in Ohio City.In the relatively short history of mass timber apartments in the United States, INTRO arrives at a recent deluge in the architectural trend towards mass timber. As with Carbon12 or the Adidas North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon, or Adohi Hall at the University of Arkansas—five stories fewer than INTRO—most architects itching to experiment with timber often face city or state code obstacles at odds with the International Building Council. So most other projects have adhered to those codes (along with National Fire Council codes).

In short, many codes aren’t up to date, like Cleveland is with a project shooting for the height INTRO is going for.

Yet, most persist regardless of restriction, and they do so for a reason beyond the imported fad of European chic.

A mass timber building, according to the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is safer, cheaper and less labor-intensive than traditional steel or concrete. The Center deems it actually less prone to tumbling at the hands of a scorcher—due to its beefed-up requirements for egresses, hallway sprinklers and smoke detection (most of what Whalen had to do to fulfill the city’s workaround).

“But I still hear from some people who are like, ‘If this catches fire, won’t it go up like a matchbox?’” Whalen says. “No, it won’t. It’s actually robust on safety measures.”

Ken Prendergast, a Cleveland development journalist and penman of the popular NEOtrans real estate blog, confirms the long-lasting payoff of INTRO’s selling point—that it will extend past any of the usual tropes in downtown’s burgeoning luxury market.

Part of the payoff is owed to timber’s inherent ecological perks: A cross-laminated timber structure will, on average, emit 21 times less carbon than your typical steel behemoth.

“I think it will save them in the long run,” Prendergast says. “Not just because of their energy efficiency grants, but with heating and cooling.” And for INTRO being made completely out of wood? “I mean, I’m sure it’s going to get some [renters] in the door.”

In Ohio City, a neighborhood of 10,000, flashy state-of-the-art apartments are often taken either with arms-open curiosity or resistance in tones of anti-capitalism. Signs still hang large near Church + State, a nearby all-steel complex with a median suite rate of $2,500, reading, “My Community is Not Your Commodity.”

<span class="content-image-text">The site of the future INTRO in Ohio City before construction.</span>The site of the future INTRO in Ohio City before construction.With Whalen promising “competitive” rates when INTRO is ready for tenants in 2022—paired with 35,000 square feet of downstairs retail, a 60-foot rooftop pool, an “elite” fitness center and a dog park—the resulting acceptance of INTRO’s national superlative will only come when property values are finally ascertained.

“In Ohio City, there’s always going to be people who think every which way about every issue,” says resident Ciara Ahern, a marketing professional whose husband Sam McNulty owns a vast majority of bars and restaurants on West 25th. She says she thinks that not only will Whalen—who worked alongside McNulty at Nano Brew in 2012—encourage an undulating growth effect on nearby business, he will also brighten up the street’s lingering aesthetics.

“Considering that the plaza there [before INTRO] was shabby and derelict,” she says. “People will come around to it when they see it built, I think.”

Whether being the tallest timber is actually a boon to Ohio City post-COVID, Whalen and others will just have to wait and see.

Mark Oprea
Mark Oprea

About the Author: Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.