Erica Spiritos discusses Mass Timber, the Future of Urban Building, and Why She Joined Swinerton

What’s your role here at Swinerton?

My title is Mass Timber Preconstruction Manager, and my primary role is to understand project goals and identify an appropriate path forward for delivering a financially-viable mass timber structure. My responsibilities begin early in the life of a project, working with project teams to determine if mass timber is the right solution for the building we’re working on.

If there’s a good fit for mass timber, then my job is to guide preconstruction activities, including structural system selection, cost estimating, and procurement strategy.  We find that decisions made at the concept and schematic design stage regarding the mass timber approach are vital to the long-term cost-competitiveness of this type of construction.

How did you get into construction?

I grew up around construction—my father is a developer—and my degree is in civil and environmental engineering, focused mostly on environmental engineering. My first job was as an assistant PM on the construction of a drinking water treatment facility in New York, and during that time, I learned about mass timber at an Architectural Record conference.

My mind was blown. As a native New Yorker, I perceived mass timber to be the most beautiful and meaningful way to bring nature into the city, so right away I was passionate about it and wanted to be part of the industry.

It was suggested to me that the best way to learn about mass timber would be to work for a manufacturer since they are at the center of this emerging industry. So I went to Structurlam, one of the leading mass timber manufacturers in North America. Based in Portland, I managed all Oregon and Washington projects, helping to build a market for mass timber construction in the Pacific Northwest and educating the AEC community on how to design and build successful mass timber projects.

How big and impactful can mass timber be?

It’s an exciting question, especially because Swinerton is in on the ground floor of a budding industry—we’re literally working on some the first 100 projects to be built in the US.

I firmly believe this is the way we ought to build cities. We’re seeing massive migration and population growth in our urban environments, and it’s imperative that we build these out of renewable materials, to reduce our carbon footprint, connect people with nature, and promote the long-term preservation of our forest ecosystems.

One major opportunity for mass timber is in mid-rise construction, where zoning allows for building heights above six stories (the limit for light-frame wood construction) but not to heights that make sense to build with steel or concrete. Mass timber building presents a real alternative where you can maximize square footage, keep costs in check, and create a beautiful place that people will want to live in an urban environment.

What do you feel like people don’t know about mass timber?

We are seeing a strong interest in mass timber without the widespread understanding of how to implement this construction typology. There are questions about the differences between various mass timber products, acoustic and fire performance, the 3D modeling and prefabrication process, and the permitting path through the building code. Our goal is to fill in that information gap. To build one of these projects takes willpower and a lot of investigation and research, and if we can make that process easier for project teams, then we feel we’ve done good work.

One of the things that really excites me about mass timber is the much more collaborative approach that is required for developing constructible and economical structures with precision-manufactured components. Most people in the AEC community are frustrated by the constant need for redesign and RFIs and change orders. Mass timber projects invite and benefit from a transparent and trusting communication dynamic, where all key players are at the table, and the best idea comes from the team rather than the individual.

Our goal is to accelerate the mainstream adoption of mass timber across the US in commercial construction markets, and to support the development and design community in bringing those projects to life at scale and at a reasonable cost across every Swinerton division. We’ve built some exciting cornerstone projects so far, and our goal is to build that out even further across the country now through education.

What exciting projects is Swinerton working on?

Every mass timber project is exciting in its own way! One project that we’re working on right now is the Beaverton Public Safety Center, a critical facility that’s built to support public safety as a base of operations for the people who are protecting our city. I really like knowing that first responders will be surrounded by wood, which is proven to reduce stress levels. I love the social implications of a design that supports these people.

Overall, I think that it is powerful to build spaces that allow people to live their lives in an indoor environment that’s built with natural materials. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of office buildings designed with timber. If you’re going to sit a desk and work at a computer all day, being surrounded by wood is a huge plus, and it does wonders for the spirits. The building itself becomes a thing that contributes to the bottom line through employee satisfaction, happiness, and wellness.

What attracted you to Swinerton and what are you looking forward to working on?

I have been with Swinerton for four months, and got to know Swinerton while working for Structurlam on the First Tech Federal Credit Unionproject in Hillsboro.

At that point, I had worked with every big general contractor in Portland, and Swinerton totally stood out from the pack just by their willingness to get their hands dirty and learn a new market. Their sophisticated use of technology and BIM coordination was also inspiring, and I recognized their excitement and commitment to mass timber. I never thought I’d end up working for a general contractor, but I couldn’t see myself anywhere other than Swinerton. That builder’s mentality and the desire to learn are compelling and exciting to me.

How would you describe the Swinerton culture?

Swinerton is defined by people who operate with integrity. The culture is fun and supportive, and yet everyone at Swinerton is serious in their commitment to doing good work. Imagine an office where everyone is given as much responsibility as they want to take on, with nearly equal representation of men and women, and three dogs roaming around looking for a playmate.

It’s incredible to be part of a 100% employee-owned company that is strong and stable, and yet also fosters a startup feel with an entrepreneurial spirit. The chance to launch a new business venture within the structure of a high-performing company is already an incredible opportunity for which I am grateful.