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Eliot Congregational Church

Project Team

Leers Weinzapfel Associates / Architect
Community Purchasing Alliance of Massachusetts
/ Development Consultant
TLee Development LLC
/ Advising Development Consultant
Eliot Congregational Church
/ Client
BVH Integrated Services
/ MEP/FP Engineering
ARUP North America
/ Structural Engineering
WB Engineering
/ Code Consultant
Dharam Consulting
/ Cost Estimating

Executive Summary

Housing is the most basic need in our society. Affordable housing even more so for the most under-served residents in our cities and Boston is no exception. Though affordable housing must work within the funding parameters, it does not mean that it has to be a cookiecutter solution using the least expensive materials, often not well built and below market standards. Rather we should aim to include the latest improvements in sustainability and human well-being for such projects.

Project Description, History, and Team

Affordable housing at Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury, which is a neighborhood within the city of Boston, MA, will serve the underprivileged inner-city community in Roxbury. In addition to affordable housing units, the large, expansive existing church building can be leveraged to provide community support spaces often necessary but often overlooked with affordable housing; business incubator resource center, after-school activities, and community food pantry, to name a few which many non-profit and faith-based organizations provide. The project is intended to provide a total of twenty-four affordable housing units across an addition and renovation that would work with proposed project source funding common to affordable housing development and includes operational budget for long term viability. Ten percent of the units are planned to be affordable to households making very low income (about $30k per year) while the remaining ninety percent of the units are intended to be affordable to households making about $55 to $70 per year, well within Boston area’s low-income thresholds.

The project will utilize the Church’s biggest asset, which is the building itself and the land property on which it sits. The addition will leverage an underused portion of the property, a small site of around 4,500 square feet currently used as a parking lot, and provide a four-story addition with fifteen units, consistent with neighboring triple decker and multi-family residential buildings, providing a good transition from the much larger scale church building on the corner of the property. The renovation portion is intended to be in the current three-story administration wing of the Church where the existing structure and window locations are suitable for conversion to nine housing units. Since the Church is listed on the National Historic Landmark Registry, it quickly proved unfeasible to add units in the main church building as that would have required significant alterations to its exterior. This study focuses particularly on the addition aspect of the project.

Reverend Dr. Evan C. Hines is the Senior Pastor of the Eliot Congregational Church which comprises of a predominantly African American congregation serving the needs of its local community. Rev. Hines has dedicated his life as a minister to helping the people of the Roxbury community, where he grew up, to advocate for their social and economic future. He met Tom Chung, Principal of Leers Weinzapfel Associates (LWA), through Tom’s graduate studio in Mass Timber design at Wentworth Institute of Technology where Tom led his students in exploring the potential of mass timber architecture for adaptive reuse and addition to the Eliot Church building and property.

Leers Weinzapfel Associates is a design firm of 30+ architects and designers based in Boston, MA. LWA aims to bring ‘responsible design excellence’ by focusing on the human experience, sustainability, and craft of building to ensure a solution that is right and appropriate for each project and client’s schedule and budget. The LWA team brings extensive experience and leadership in mass timber. Tom understands intimately the interconnected relationships among every entity in the life cycle of mass timber and has an extensive network of connections with the wood industry, which is necessary for exploring the potential of mass timber for affordable housing. This understanding comes from LWA’s two large-scale built projects: the Adohi Hall at the University of Arkansas, a student housing project, completed in 2019, which was at the time the largest cross laminated timber building in the US, and the Olver Design Building at UMass Amherst, completed in 2017, which was among the first large scale academic mass timber buildings in the US. Both projects embody the efficiency of mass timber towards a cost-effective layout and construction, that will dictate the approach necessary for this project’s housing units. The key is in translating the potential and justifying the cost of mass timber, typically a largescale building product, into a small affordable housing project.

Project Goals

So why mass timber for affordable housing?

We know that wood is fundamentally sustainable and renewable. As a tree grows, it takes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it, much of it in its trunks and branches which are the source of wood products. In addition, the overall embodied energy or carbon emissions of building with wood from extraction, processing, transportation through construction is much lower than other building materials such as steel or concrete. However, Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), among the most popular mass timber product, is made with highly automated, expensive, large-scale machinery such as CLT presses which are designed to produce large scale mass timber products for buildings in growing urban centers, as well as Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines which cut and shape the mass timber products for a plethora of design connections: from simple to very complex joints. But there is a cost to such technology, with investments in CLT factories being in the tens of millions of dollars which ultimately has to be passed down to the customer. While that isn’t as a big of a factor in large scale projects that compare with costs for steel and concrete buildings, small affordable housing mass timber projects such as ours must be comparable to light frame wood construction, which is typical for such building types and is among the least expensive structural system.

The goal of the project is to bring all the benefits of mass timber – environmental, experiential, and social to enhance the quality of life for our most underserved residents. This effort will require the experience and expertise of a seasoned mass timber design team to quickly evaluate mass timber options along with light frame wood options to provide the best balance of benefits and cost. It requires knowledge and understanding of the various mass timber suppliers and their respective processes, given that it is very much still an emerging technology with wood species varieties, proprietary lamination dimensions and layups, preferred billet sizes and an array of connections possibilities. The project is intended to incorporate core sustainability principles such as re-use of existing building and new construction with renewable material for structure: wood. Both mass timber and light frame will be used for low embodied carbon and carbon sequestration. Exposure of mass timber elements will be key in limiting additional resources for finishes while providing a space of well-being by taking advantage of wood’s inherent biophilic qualities.

Project Approach

The project type and its small size was the primary factor that drove the design team to look very closely at a specific mass timber product, Nail Laminated Timber (NLT), to reduce the cost and carbon footprint even further from already sustainable mass timber products such as Crossed Laminated Timber (CLT). In an effort to afford mass timber for affordable housing, the design team went back to the basic building block, the ubiquitous 2x lumber which is the basis of light-frame wood construction and many mass timber products.

NLT is the closest in relationship to lumber as it is simply either 2x4’s or 2x6’s, most of which have no further postproduction other than nailing them together into wall, floor, and roof panels without use of expensive machinery. Furthermore, it could be produced nearly anywhere by any contractor with lumber, hand tools, and a worktable. Given the existing site conditions for this project, lumber could simply be brought to site and an adjacent staging area on the property could be used to set up a small tent (for inclement weather if needed) and a worktable to fabricate the NLT panels on site.

Given many similar sized empty lots and old buildings in Roxbury, the city of Boston, and cities throughout the US, the project is intended also to be a prototype that shows a blueprint for neighborhood organizations like Eliot Church, its residents and like-minded developers and their city officials to collaborate and address the issues of affordable housing that exceeds current standards, without necessarily waiting for that “big project” that require large lots and large sums of investment.

Tom S. Chung FAIA, LEED BD+C
Principal, Leers Weinzapfel Associates

View the full report here.

An Interview with Tom Chung FAIA LEED AP BD+C

March 2022 | Tom Chung is a Principal at Leers Weinzapfel Associates.

1. Why did you apply for the accelerator and how do you think using mass timber is uniquely beneficial to your project?

It was a great opportunity to help with mass timber research on an affordable housing project, which as a building type has had limited use of mass timber given cost constraints.

2. What is exciting to you about your project as it relates to advancing the use of mass timber in the region?

It’s exciting to think about equity in housing, that affordable housing can also take advantage of a more sustainable type of building construction with increased user well-being, given the biophilic qualities of wood.

3. What are some challenges you’ve experienced or seen in trying to utilize mass timber? How will this program support you in overcoming these challenges?

Cost, code issues and constructability are all challenges given that it’s a newer form of construction and this program will support addressing these challenges for affordable housing.

4. If you could only tell the general public one thing to remember about mass timber construction, what would it be?

It’s like going to the forest in your own home, given its fresh pine scent, warmth to touch and it’s soothing to the soul.