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Building showcases wood’s past, future

  • Except for a few steel beams, the 87,000-square-foot building, which was completed last year, is constructed almost entirely from wooden boards that are glued together with moisture-resistant adhesives called glulam, or glued laminated timber. Contributed Photo/Alex Schreyer

  • A rooftop garden in the John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. For the Recorder/Andy Castillo

  • The John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts is made almost entirely of wood. Contributed Photo/Alex Schreyer

For the Recorder
Published: 6/19/2018 5:59:56 PM

A strong aroma of fresh wood greets visitors to the John W. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, wafting from large wooden posts and massive beams that support four floors of classrooms and a rooftop garden.

Except for a few steel beams, the 87,000-square-foot building, which was completed last year for $52 million, is constructed almost entirely from wooden boards that are glued together with moisture-resistant adhesives called glulam, or glued laminated timber.

“Everyone loves it. You come into the building, and you’re happy. You start smelling the building. You just don’t do that with steel,” says Alexander Schreyer, program director of the university’s building technology program.

He’s sitting in his office on the building’s fourth floor. Behind him, massive glulam braces are attached to even bigger columns by foot-long screws and iron pegs. Schreyer described glulam as “plywood on steroids.”

According to the university’s website, the building is the most technologically advanced, contemporary mass timber building in the United States, and is the largest timber frame structure in the Northeast. In recognition of that, the building was highlighted last year in a feature exhibit on timber construction at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the site notes.

The Design Building houses the university’s architecture, landscape architecture and regional planning, and building and construction technology programs. Throughout are classrooms, offices, lecture halls and construction elements that showcase modern building construction techniques.

“This is the way of the future, truly. The world is coming here to learn from us,” said Peggi Clouston, an associate professor of wood mechanics and timber engineering in the university’s department of environmental conservation. “We were at a conference in Boston (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) yesterday, and I convened with researchers from around the world to talk about wood mechanics.”

Strength and efficiency

Above Schreyer is the bare-wooded underside of 20-foot-long cross-laminated panels that make up the roof. Below is composite flooring made from five layers of cross-laminated timber panels connected to poured concrete by metal plates that were designed in collaboration with UMass researchers, who later publicized their work in scientific papers.

“According to our calculations for one of those papers, (the concrete and wood composite) quadruples the stiffness of the floor,” making the building as a whole stronger, Clouston said. She continues to lead scientific research to figure out the best ways to use laminated timber.

A driving force behind implementing wood into the project was to demonstrate that laminated timber framing — uncommon in modern day large-frame buildings — can be affordable and more efficient than other materials like steel or concrete.

“If this was a steel building, the ceiling here would probably be a drop ceiling,” Schreyer says, looking up at the high ceilings in his office.

He notes that, aside from aesthetics, building with wood — thus needing to grow more trees — reduces a building’s environmental impact. Trees take carbon out of the atmosphere and replace it with oxygen. He notes that wood is a renewable resource because trees can regrow, and overall, the amount of energy it takes to create glued laminated boards is significantly lower than other materials.

“The energy that’s used for this is very little — you need a little bit of kiln drying, a little bit of cutting, and that’s it,” Schreyer says. He notes that laminated timber also can be implemented into residential homes.

Locally, Wright Builders in Northampton and Kent Hicks Construction of West Chesterfield are two companies that use glulam in both residential and commercial buildings.

Ben Norrichs, a project manager with Kent Hicks Construction, says his company often uses laminated timber to bolster structural supports of old homes during “deep energy retrofits.” Over the past few years, Wright Builders has completed a few structures with laminated timber including the R.W. Kern Center and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at Hampshire College in Amherst.

Jonathan Wright, founder and senior adviser at Wright Builders, predicted that, in the future, large timber products will be once again produced and widely implemented in buildings across New England.

“There’s significant movement afoot — now that paper harvesting has tapered off in Maine — to replace that industry with mass timber,” Wright said. “There are going to be more options, it’s going to be local, and there will be less transportation costs.”

“The natural world created (wood) to be renewable. And it’s not just renewable, it’s supporting life while it’s growing. How cool is that?” Wright said.

Schreyer points out that wood is a natural insulation. As such, it can passively improve a building’s energy efficiency, reducing the need for artificial insulation and drywall. Wood also absorbs and emits moisture — acting as a natural humidifier and dehumidifier — to regulate a building’s interior atmosphere.

Old technology reapplied

Framing buildings with large pieces of timber isn’t a new architectural concept. Historically, many mill buildings in the region were built with wooden frames, Schreyer says. With the advent of steel and concrete in construction, however, builders stopped using wood in commercial buildings because it was more expensive.

Glulam, which was invented in the mid-1900s, has helped bring down the cost of large timber framing. Wright says that building with laminated timbers allows builders to cut expenses elsewhere, like foregoing fire resistant materials, insulation, interior decor and drywall, because wood on its own is aesthetically appealing. Wooden buildings also can be built faster than their steel counterparts, cutting down on construction costs.

From a conference room near his office (which notably has self-tinting windows), Schreyer points out a new steel building that’s being built for the university’s Isenberg School of Management that, while smaller, is expected to cost about $10 million more than the Design Building.

Laminated timber has become more popular in recent years, especially in Europe, Schreyer says. In North America, the industry is rising, influenced by increased interest in eco-friendly building materials and by advancements in computer technologies that allow designers to precisely design and fabricate entire buildings in workshops that precisely fit together on site, he says.

“All of the wood in this building was digitally planned, and digitally manufactured,” he continues. “The building came together with an eighth of an inch in its tolerance. Everything fits.”

Comparatively, when steel is used in buildings, builders initially “leave (the frame) a little loose, and then yank it until it fits,” Schreyer says. Also compared to steel, wood has a higher strength-to-weight ratio, he says, and as such is more efficient and lighter. As a structural product, it’s “very, very strong in compression.”

Fire resistance

Schreyer notes that the Design Building’s interior stairwells and elevator shafts are enclosed by massive laminated planks turned vertical, simultaneously holding up the building and providing a fire resistant safe space in case of a fire.

Unlike steel, which bends under heat, timber chars on the outside when it’s exposed to fire, he says, protecting the wood’s core and maintaining a structural integrity.

“When mass timber burns, it doesn’t catch fire easily,” Clouston said. “And you know that from your own fireplace — you always put the big section on last, and when it does catch, it burns at a predictable rate,” she said, noting that some pieces of wood in the building are two-feet by two-feet. “Because of its size, it meets the building’s code regulations of fire resistance.”

In the past, mill buildings burned down because of chemicals, some of which were absorbed by the wood, and other materials like paper that were kept inside, and not because of wood’s natural fire resistance, Schreyer says. Because of these qualities, the Design Building’s columns and beams are exposed as bare wood.

“My greatest love of this mass timber construction is the fact that you can see the structure,” Clouston said. “When you build with steel, you have to cover the steel with fire resistance material, which closes the structure. With this, you get to actually walk up, and as Alex (Schreyer) likes to say, hug the column.”

Olver’s intervention

Still, Schreyer says, most architects and planners don’t yet implement glued laminated timber into their designs. As a result, those who want a glulam building have to go out of their way to make sure it happens.

Initially, the Design Building was designed as a steel structure.

However, Clouston, Schreyer and others lobbied the university for a laminated timber building as a way to showcase the qualities of wood as a building material. Eventually, they gained the ear of retired U.S. Congressman John Olver of Amherst. Three months into the design process, Olver convinced the university to change the building plans from steel to wood. Because of his efforts, the building was named after him.

Ultimately, Schreyer says, the building’s final cost was comparable to the original steel design. Eventually, he adds, he’s hoping a detailed lifecycle cost analysis, completed over years, will prove that building with glued laminated timber is as efficient and good for the environment as it is economical.

“Once you have it, you realize that it’s a very cool thing to have, and everyone else is jealous,” Schryer said.

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