Forterra’s Focus in 2021: People and Integrity

How this Challenge Winner is Staying True to Its Vision

People walking around in the Wadajir Market

Our effort to prototype and deploy a modular cross-laminated timber (CLT) building system brings together tribes, communities of color, land trusts, architects and others to re-engineer the affordable housing supply chain. 

In the year ahead, our project is all about people and integrity.

A resilient, innovative and successful endeavor like this one relies on a team with great integrity, resources, and flexibility. We will be successful by ensuring that each member is heard and respected, thereby unleashing the full power of diverse thought and lived experience.

Resolution 1: We will listen to each other.

We start by listening. We work hard to hear as many voices of the region as possible so that what we do reflects the needs and values of those who live here. To ensure that the best of the world is here for future generations, we must sit at the same table, get people talking, and stir the pot of ideas and values, in person, in print and on social media.

We support great ideas no matter their origin. We don’t settle for “us vs. them” paradigms.

We bring knowledge of finance, real estate and land. We’ve worked hard to develop innovative models for long-term affordability and sustainability, balancing attainably priced and market-rate homes, for rent and cooperative ownership. But there is so much that we can learn.

With each project, we prioritize local expertise and establish partnerships with community-based organizations. And we are learning from our mistakes. Our initial attempts at community engagement were not successful. We learned that there is much more to collaboration than simply asking for input and keeping people informed of decisions they did not make. True partnership means giving members of the community a meaningful role to play in project design. It means recognizing past harms, mourning them, and finding a way forward. It means taking the time to understand what system we represent, what finance means, what development means, what needs to change if we are going to walk forward together.

Community-driven design takes patience, humility and an open mind. What we learn and what communities gain will help make our region’s growth sustainable and equitable.

Resolution 2: We will be transparent about risks.

Innovation implies risk and dependencies. Here are a few of our challenges.

Development risk: As we break new ground in construction technology, we always face the risk of the unforeseen and the unknown. To mitigate this risk, we spent the first two years identifying the world leaders in modular CLT technology and only then matched them to those American consultants willing to learn from their peers.

Permitting dependencies: There is risk that while CLT has been in the national building code since 2015, some state and local code officials might not rapidly permit the technology. To address this, we have spent five years prepping and educating local jurisdictions in CLT – how it is used and why. This has resulted in Washington leading the way for other states in permitting CLT to 18 stories.

Community engagement risk: We are a historically white-led organization primarily serving communities of color. It was not clear even two years ago that we would be able to effect the internal change needed to understand and work with communities in a new way. We have therefore spent those two years building diversity within the organization, as well as implementing intensive equity training for our board and staff. As a result, our staff and our partnerships have flourished. Our commitment to dialogue and learning has opened doors to the long-term relationships that anchor successful and attainable housing. We welcome this necessary and productive dependency on community.

Resolution 3: We will maximize our efforts.

The vision isn’t small. And it is going to take a lot of hard work. To scale our model, we are pursuing three simultaneous initiatives this year:

  1. The prototype: A standardized modular CLT chassis
  2. Wadajir (Tukwila, Washington): A 100-unit pilot complex for immigrant African refugee families
  3. The Hilltop (Tacoma, Washington): A 450-unit complex for Black families facing displacement

Future success is dependent on the completion of the prototype. We must maximize our efforts and do everything from acoustic and fire testing to traditional entitlement and costing. If we succeed, there is the opportunity for the model to be replicated nationally.

Resolution 4: We will be decisive.

This work is urgent. More and more people are being priced out of our communities. We cannot afford to waste time on analysis paralysis or unclear accountability structures.

Construction innovation has stalled for over a century. Fossil fuels are burned to manufacture concrete and steel for buildings that few can afford. The system is reliant on importation and contributes to greater emissions and cost escalation. Without discipline we cannot address these core challenges.

Modular CLT dares us to imagine a future forest-to-home continuum where sustainably managed forests absorb our carbon and are responsibly harvested for the production of long-lasting, durable, interlocking modules. Modular CLT can be more cost certain and more scalable than many other technologies available today.

Forterra’s challenge is to convert an older supply chain into a newer one, proving that it is in everybody’s interest to innovate.

Resolution 5: We will treat our team and partners with respect and integrity.

Our pipeline projects are centered around communities of color, halting their displacement and creating agency through ownership.

Historic and current methods of real estate acquisition, development and traditional financing disproportionately affect the most marginalized people in society – including people of color, low-income people, women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. We believe that these communities must therefore be central to our work.

Because our community development work is driven by the needs of the people who are most directly impacted but least heard, we see community engagement as the key to success for all our projects. Forterra is completing multiyear community engagement efforts for the projects in Tacoma and Tukwila. In both instances, Forterra is partnering with community-based organizations to conduct outreach.

Our community engagement principles include:

  • The community, and not the developer, must own the project.
  • We endeavor at all times to communicate clearly and consistently with the community about project plans and updates.
  • Engagement events provide the local community with the opportunity to shape each project.
  • Outreach must provide a format for community direction on unit mix, pricing (based on AMI) and ownership structure.
  • We are accountable to the neighborhoods in which we work.

We will sustain this ethos of respect and integrity.


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