A new mass-timber, transit-connected, technology-rich office building fits Minneapolis’ Warehouse District to a T

By John Reinan

A remarkable study in contrast has recently taken shape in Minneapolis’ North Loop, the white-hot creative center of the city. It’s a new building that’s massive in size and dramatic in appearance, yet it fits snugly and unobtrusively into its surroundings.

In form and layout, it resembles the century-old industrial structures that define the neighborhood, yet its vibe is absolutely modern. It uses an ancient building material—wood—in ways our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. It’s T3, and it’s hard to imagine a better blend of heritage and contemporary.

The name stands for timber, transit, and technology, signifying the key ingredients in its creation. It’s a mix intended to respond to a major shift in the modern American workforce—and, by extension, the buildings they work in. “There’s sort of a sea change in demand for office space that came about because of these new technology-driven companies, with young leadership and a new set of values,” says Steve Cavanaugh, AIA, principal with DLR Group, the architect of record for T3. “One of those values clearly is sustainability. And another seems to be a desire for authenticity.

“You can draw an analogy between local craft and the notion that a building has an authentic quality that you can see and feel,” he adds.

For Bob Pfefferle, that authenticity starts with T3’s mass-timber construction. Pfefferle is director of new business development for the Minneapolis office of Hines, a global developer. “There’s an authentic, tactile element to the timber itself,” says Pfefferle. But he’s quick to add that it’s not timber for the sake of doing timber. What Hines was looking for above all was a building that would meet the market demand for office space in the North Loop. And that market looks for flexible space, access to multiple transportation modes, and a connection to the neighborhood and the wider city, he says.

“We were seeing bigger tenants, national tenants coming into the North Loop,” says Pfefferle. “So it became a question of, what works in this location?”

T3 sits at a focal point of the Twin Cities’ transportation network, steps away from a major hub for rail and bus lines, with a regional bike trail running alongside the building. Inside, the 238,000-square-foot structure is designed for collaboration, with the lobby transformed into what architects call a “social workspace”—a commons where people can have coffee, tinker with their bikes, or gather for meetings. The open plan for each floor features an 11-foot-high ceiling with windows running nearly floor to ceiling, allowing natural light to penetrate deep into the floor plate.

The foundation, core, and ground floor are concrete, but the rest of the seven-story structure is timber, making it the largest timber building in North America. Columns and beams are glue-laminated European spruce, while the floor slabs—which also serve as ceilings for the floors below—are nail-laminated in a spruce-pine-fir mix. Much of the pine comes from trees that were downed by the mountain pine beetle.

Wood is “very alluring and very attractive,” says Candice Nichol, design lead for Michael Green Architecture in Vancouver, British Columbia, the design architect on the project. “There’s something in the wood that we can see and connect to. Just like a snowflake, no two pieces of wood are the same.”

The design team spent a lot of time in the North Loop, says Nichol, taking in the spaces, the culture, the food scene. “We wanted to create a good, neighborly building that wasn’t outrageous—that was a quiet neighbor,” she says. “But we also didn’t want to be replicating something that had already been done.”

In a nod to the surrounding structures, many of them vintage brick, the architects chose to clad the building in weathering steel. The material “has the variegated, warm color of a brick facade,” says Cavanaugh. “You get the warm oranges and browns and deep reds of a brick without burdening the structure with the weight of a masonry skin.”

Cavanaugh adds that the steel also has a lesser carbon footprint than brick, which contributes to the sustainability of the project. That’s in addition to the timber itself, which will sequester about 3,200 tons of carbon over the life of the building. With companies looking for efficiency and their young employees looking for sustainability, it makes for a combination “that appeals to the CFO as well as the head of human resources,” says Pfefferle.

As much as an office building can, T3 brings a natural element that’s too often missing from modern urban life, says Nichol. “We’ve slowly been separating ourselves from our natural environment,” she says. “So it makes sense to bring those materials back into the spaces where we spend half our lives, to make those environments as appealing and healthy as we can.”

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Client: Hines Interests Limited Partnership
Architect of record: DLR Group, in collaboration with Michael Green Architecture (MGA)
Principal-in-charge: Tom Gerster, AIA
DLR Group project lead: Steve Cavanaugh, AIA
MGA project lead: Candice Nichol
Energy modeling: DLR Group
Landscape architect: Damon Farber
General contractor: Kraus Anderson
Size: 238,000 square feet
Completion: October 2016
Photographer: Ema Peter