US colleges showcase mass timber's potential

Mass timber, a durable and sustainable engineered wood product, is gaining popularity in colleges across the country.

US colleges showcase mass timber's potential

Adohi Hall, a student housing facility at the University of Arkansas, was constructed using mass timber and is located in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This sustainable building material is being championed across American campuses as a low-carbon substitute for steel and concrete. (Trent Bozeman/The New York Times)

By Lisa Prevost

Published: Wed 22 Mar 2023, 4:42 PM

Mass timber, a type of engineered wood that boasts durability and sustainability, is gaining popularity in colleges nationwide. It is being incorporated not only into the curriculum as a theoretical concept but also as a practical building material in campus structures.

Specialists argue that universities are playing a crucial role in raising awareness about mass timber — wood layers bonded with glue or nails — by showcasing its potential as a low-carbon alternative to traditional materials like steel and concrete.

'Our college and university clients have truly adopted the imperatives of climate change,' stated Ellen Belknap, president of SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland, Maine. 'I'm delighted that universities are leading the way.'

However, the widespread use of mass timber faces significant obstacles: suppliers are primarily located in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, and the initial costs are higher than those for steel and concrete. Despite these hurdles, developers are discovering that mass timber can be erected more quickly, allowing them to recoup initial costs sooner.

'The building is assembled somewhat like an Erector Set,' commented Sandra Lupien, the director of MassTimber__URL__, an educational and outreach program at Michigan State University.

Liam O'Brien, a 23-year-old graduate student at the University of Maine, is part of a team working to create a cross-laminated timber panel insulated with wood fibre. This type of insulation could be produced using waste from timber processing and, if incorporated into prefabricated panels at a factory, could further decrease construction time and costs.

Initially a forestry major, O'Brien switched to wood science as he became intrigued by the carbon-reducing potential of cross-laminated timber panels, which are composed of several layers of boards arranged in alternating directions and bonded with adhesives.

'It is a material that should gain traction in the US as long as we can persuade people,' O'Brien stated. 'Building sciences can significantly influence our response to climate change.'

Cross-laminated panels, which have been used in Europe for a long time, are so robust that they are suitable for walls, roofs, and flooring. They also offer several other advantages: they capture carbon, preventing it from entering the atmosphere; they are more sustainable than other construction materials, such as steel and concrete; and they are exposed, adding aesthetic appeal.

In recent years, mass timber construction has gained momentum in the United States, with universities acting as a catalyst. The majority of the activity is taking place in heavily forested states, including Arkansas, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and South Carolina, where the extensive use of the material could help grow or rejuvenate the forest industry.

The University of Arkansas is one of the pioneers in this field. 'We have become a pilgrimage site for many people,' said Peter B. MacKeith, the dean of the university's Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, who also played a role in convincing campus leaders of the benefits of mass timber. The Fayetteville campus currently boasts two buildings that feature the material, with a third one in the pipeline.

The Build Lab at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Campuses across the nation are endorsing mass timber, a sustainable construction material, as a low-carbon substitute for steel and concrete. (Trent Bozeman/The New York Times)

By employing mass timber in a library storage annex, which was completed in 2018, the university saved over $1 million compared to the original steel-and-concrete plan, according to MacKeith. He added, 'That's when people start to pay attention and consider this as an alternative form of construction.'

Adohi Hall, a 200,000-square-foot residence hall built with mass timber, was inaugurated in 2019. It comprises two five-story buildings connected by a common area. 'It's a rather premium set of spaces — there's a warmth to it, visually and atmospherically, that the students greatly appreciate,' MacKeith noted. 'And commercial developers come to inspect it. It's comparable to multifamily housing.'

The university is soon to commence construction on the $33.5 million Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation, designed by Grafton Architects. It will accommodate the school's graduate program in timber and wood design (among other programs), and will provide students with the opportunity to construct large-scale mass timber prototypes, focusing on affordable housing and new construction technologies. 'These buildings are proof of concept in terms of time efficiency, cost savings, and a safer construction site,' MacKeith stated.

Michigan State University constructed the state's first mass timber building: the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility, which was converted from an old power plant and incorporates cross-laminated panels in the framing, floors, and ceilings. The building has attracted industry professionals, with about 1,000 of them having toured it since it opened last year, said George H. Berghorn, an assistant professor of construction management at the university's School of Planning, Design, and Construction.

'It's just a stunning building,' he remarked. 'Many students just go there to study even if they don't have a class there.'

However, a lack of knowledge remains a barrier to the broader adoption of mass timber, Berghorn noted. To address this, the university recently received a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that funds scientific research, to develop a national model for a mass timber design and construction curriculum for architecture, engineering, and construction programs.

Clemson University in South Carolina received a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Energy to assist in expanding the use of mass timber. Researchers there are developing a floor system made of cross-laminated timber panels that can span approximately 40 feet, double the current industry standard. They are also exploring ways to integrate the system with other building components, such as ductwork and electrical conduits.

Such a comprehensive system would reduce the need for as many structural beams and could potentially accelerate construction, said Dustin Albright, assistant director of the university's School of Architecture.

'We aim to devise an all-in-one approach to the floor system that allows the flexibility to access those components, but do it in a way that's all timber,' he explained.

Clemson has two mass-timber buildings on its main campus: the Samuel J. Cadden Chapel and the Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Education Center, which uses Southern yellow pine. Researchers have installed wireless moisture and vibration sensors at the recreation center, completed in 2020, to collect data on the building's long-term performance.

Several universities are investigating the feasibility of local manufacturing. Michigan State is monitoring demand for mass timber, and studying what the complete supply chain might look like, with the aim of providing that information to potential manufacturers, Lupien said.

At the University of Maine, landowners, architects, lumber manufacturers, and construction companies exchange information through the Maine Mass Timber Commercialisation Center, with the goal of eventually making a compelling case for manufacturing cross-laminated timber.

'What we're striving to do is eliminate any technical barriers or questions that a company might have before setting up a manufacturing operation here,' said Stephen Shaler, professor of sustainable materials and technology at the university's School of Forest Resources. In collaboration with an industry partner, the university has successfully qualified cross-laminated timber made of Maine timber for construction.

However, Belknap, the architect, believes that demand will need to increase significantly before it will be economically viable to establish a local production plant.

'When Boston, New York, Philly, and DC start building in tall timber,' she stated, 'then it will make economic sense to set up a manufacturing facility.'

This article was originally published in The New York Times.