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Aedis Architects

Jun 20, 2023 Chelsea Drenick, SE

I sat down with John Diffenderfer, and Afsha Ali, to learn more about the work they’re doing at Aedis Architects, one of California’s leading educational design architects and an innovator in applying high-performance building technology in California public schools. John is the company’s President, and Afsha was named Associate Principal this year, having led projects for Aedis since 2008.   

John and Afsha share their vision for TimberQuest®, a pre-engineered mass timber building solution to house all manners of educational programs for California schools, and why the firm prioritizes wood as a sustainable design solution. 

John started off the interview: “It was about nine a.m. on a sunny morning, and the kids were set about on a lawn in front of their new kindergarten classroom building. They were in little circles, each around their own adult, who was reading a sweet children’s story about a construction site at the end of the day. The readers were from Aedis Architects, XL Construction, and Daedalus Engineers—the folks who were responsible for the one-of-a-kind–and perhaps the first-of-many—Sacred Heart School’s Timberquest® kindergarten classroom building. For all of us, it was a celebration we got to share with the students and teachers who would benefit from the amazing place. I don’t think they even knew what it signified; they just knew they loved it!” 

Chelsea: John, thanks for that charming mental picture! I can feel your excitement as you talk about TimberQuest. What is it and what makes it so important?    

John: The last few years have seen a great deal of press about how the design and construction industry is on the verge of disruptive change. We have been contemplating our part in this for a while, which ultimately led to a meeting of minds with the two other firms that would become our collaborators in this venture. We each brought a piece of the puzzle—engineering and construction experience with CLT; experience with the school design marketplace and the agencies involved. Just as importantly, we each shared a drive to do the impossible: produce a system that was affordable, fast, biophilic, AND gentle on the environment. Thus TimberQuest was born.  

TimberQuest is a pre-engineered (and “pre-checked”) building solution to house all manners of educational programs for California schools, constructed from a patented system of cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels for walls and roofs, that leverages best practices in daylighting, ventilation, and energy efficiency. It makes a great learning environment and represents a 68% reduction in CO2e from a baseline steel-framed building of the same size and function.

Chelsea: A 68% reduction in CO2e? That seems too good to be true. How is that achieved? 

Afsha: We worked with STŌK, a prominent environmental consulting firm, to analyze our specifications, and means and methods to establish a calculated carbon impact of our first installation. We also asked them to benchmark more conventional construction techniques applied to the exact same building configuration, using both wood and steel. Concrete foundations and slabs were the same across the board. We found that wood in any form will beat steel by a long shot. The embodied carbon of a conventional wood-framed building is going to be more than 30% better than its all-steel cousins. With mass timber, embodied carbon can be further offset; we have a net 68% reduction compared to steel. This is all due to biogenic carbon storage in the wood products, and with mass timber there is more wood fiber than conventional wood framing. The way we understand it, trees essentially soak up carbon like a sponge, and in sequestering carbon, wood products are essentially cleaning the atmosphere, thus providing a lasting positive impact on the atmosphere. The more wood, the more positive impact, which acts to offset the negative impact of the embodied carbon in the rest of the structure.  

Chelsea: You used the word “biophilic” in your description. Tell us more about why that matters. 

John: Biophilia is defined as the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings. Biophilic design seeks to increase this connectivity using nature, natural forms, materials, and conditions. TimberQuest employs abundant but controlled daylight, fresh air and ventilation, access to views, and of course the warmth and texture of the exposed wood on the walls, beams, and ceilings. We can’t claim to have done the research that says that the patterns of biophilic design improve emotional, physiological, and cognitive performance, but we sure did deploy its lessons! You feel it as soon as you set foot into the Sacred Heart School’s Kindergarten Building—you just feel happy there. Surely, there’s an academic paper that explains why.  

Chelsea: What else are you working on? Do you see this as your only foray into CLT?  

Afsha: At any given time, Aedis is working on more than a hundred active projects of one sort or another. A lot of our work is the rehabilitation and modernization of existing schools. So far, we have only been able to use CLT in our new construction work. The new 18,600-square-foot classroom building at Prospect High School in Saratoga, CA was actually our first use of CLT. That was also a design-bid-build job, so bid day was a nail-biter. The winner, Calstate Construction, stepped up to the challenge and weathered the steep learning curve, this being their first project using the material. Two key factors in working with CLT are the precision with which it is manufactured and its lead times. The shop drawings were coordinated with almost every trade on the project—electrical, mechanical, and plumbing—requiring all the sub-contractors to step up too, committing to the locations of penetrations and anchors at a 16th of an inch tolerance, and to do so before the floor slab was poured!

We have other [CLT] projects in the works currently. A somewhat larger TimberQuest installation is underway in Pleasanton. It’s about 8,000 square feet and will be available for Fall 2023 occupancy. We’re also developing additional typologies for TimberQuest®—high bay and long-span plans for gymnasiums, assembly and multi-use buildings, and two-story configurations with interior and exterior circulation. You’ll see the first of those being constructed in the Spring of 2024 on a site in Palo Alto, CA.  

In addition, CLT is finding its way into our multi-family residential projects, and we believe that it will soon be our go-to primary structure, especially when new carbon impact reduction directives start to come out of the Division of the State Architect next year. 

Chelsea: You folks seem so passionate about CLT. Is this part of a larger sustainability agenda? 

John: Aedis Architects has been fighting the battle for environmentally responsible design for years. We remember our first Net Zero Energy/Emissions building built back in 2010. It was practically unheard of back then, just like mass timber is considered an emerging technology today. Some of our clients are saving up to 80% on their energy bills now, thanks to the energy saving strategies we’ve designed in our new and renovated buildings. In nearly every case, the by-product of energy-efficient design is daylight, access to views and fresh air, and an enhanced connection to nature. We believe in the positive lasting impact of design and preserving our planet for the next generation. 

Chelsea: Thank you Afsha and John for joining me today and sharing about Aedis. I look forward to seeing more TimberQuest projects and other mass timber projects from your firm built in the near future.

Chelsea Drenick, SE, is a Regional Director covering CA-North, NV, and UT. Contact Chelsea for free technical support or find the contact in your region