Design Building at UMass will revive technique of environmentally friendly timber-frame construction

Last modified: Monday, June 08, 2015

AMHERST — Many century-old mills in Holyoke were built with wood and durable beams, but constructing an institutional building almost entirely from wood at the University of Massachusetts is a novel idea.

A new building that will break ground this summer at the Amherst campus, though, is bringing back the technique of timber-frame construction once used in the mill buildings of the Paper City and aims to be both more environmentally friendly than steel-and-concrete structures and a teaching tool for students and faculty.

“What we’re doing is a modern-day revival,” said Burt Ewart, the campus project manager for the Design Building, which will house the Building and Construction Technology program and the departments of Architecture and Design and Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning.

Using engineered wood has become a common building practice in Europe and a technique that is growing in popularity both in Canada and parts of the U.S. Northwest, with an increasing recognition that timber buildings can be significantly greener than conventional steel construction.

“What’s really exciting for us is we’re all teaching sustainable building and sustainable environment,” said Alexander Schreyer, director of the Building and Construction Technology program at UMass.

The new building, which is scheduled to open in January 2017, will give students in the program a more advanced space for their research. They already do research about wood materials and how wood performs in buildings.

“It will be a really modern engineered timber-frame” building, Schreyer said. “We’re really excited to have a building here where it is being used. We’ve been interested in building out of engineered timber for a long time.”

To be built in Lot 62, adjacent to the Studio Arts Building and across North Pleasant Street from the Fine Arts Center, the 87,000-square-foot building, designed by Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates, comes with a $52 million price tag that is more costly than if the same-sized structure were made from steel and concrete.

Ewart said early in the process the decision was made to build with wood, with the difference in price largely determined to be caused by the unfamiliarity of the workforce with the technique, and some added costs in construction,

According to Ewart, the project moved forward when UMass received additional money through an environmental bond bill that added a $3 million line item after lobbying from state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and former U.S. Congressman John Olver, also of Amherst.

Good for environment

Peter Ghirardini, vice president of education at Suffolk Construction of Boston, the construction manager, said the engineered timber being used is good for the environment.

“In our industry, there’s been a trend for quite some time to build buildings in a way so they have the least impact to the climate,” Ghirardini said. “Everyone in the industry is thinking this will be a technology that takes off. We are now using a material that actually sequesters carbon.”

The main element is the cross-laminated timber panels, or CLTs, that form the walls. These are made from alternating layers of wood that is several inches thick. “It’s amazingly strong and durable and relatively lightweight,” Ewart said.

These same CLT panels, with a 4-inch concrete slab on top, makes up the composite floor system, believed to be first of its kind to be used in a project in the United States.

Glue-laminated beams and columns will form the backbone of the building.

All timber materials are being supplied by Nordic Systems, using black spruce native to northern Quebec, while Bensonwood in New Hampshire is providing the installation crew.

Ewart said eventually using wood from this area would be possible in projects. “It’s kind of a natural for an area that has as many woods as New England does,” Ewart said.

The columns, beams and bracing will arrive on site in a manner similar to a steel skeleton frame building, Ewart said. The materials are then assembled with bolts and connectors, which should go together like a piece of furniture one might purchase and assemble.

“We call it IKEA on steroids,” Ewart said.

The building will begin to rise over a six- to eight-week span in September and October. “By and large it will be appear to be a wood-timber development project,” Ewart said.

Ghirardini said among challenges will be ensuring the wood is protected from the elements during construction, such as heat and humidity of summer or the cold, snowy conditions of winter. Unlike steel, which will be hidden behind drywall and other finishes, the CLT panels are the finish surface, so workers need to use extra care in protecting it against shrinking or cracking.

Ewart said the state’s Building Code Appeals Board needs to provide a variance to use the composite floor system. The building code allows timber buildings of this size — nearly four stories — but not the CLT decking without a special permit.

The other benefit of the building is the learning that will take place both during construction and once complete with more modern offices and laboratory learning space for the departments. Building and Construction Technology will be moving from Holdsworth Hall, Architecture from the Fine Arts Center and Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning from the Hills North building.

“It is a living building showcase for the technology being taught ut of the school,” Ghirardini said,

The exposed structure will allow students and professors to have a demonstration space. “The nice thing with when you build with wood, everyone wants to see it,” Schreyer said.

Schreyer said the wood will be able to be viewed in many places, including the atrium where zipper trusses will hold up the roof, columns are exposed and the slatted ceiling will hold up the piping and other mechanical equipment. Students will be able monitor the building over time and learn about its environmental performance.

“We’re all really looking forward to doing research into the building environment. There will be a lot of collaborative opportunities,” Schreyer said.

Other projects

While the Design Building may be the most unique building currently planned, other projects also are in progress this summer on the UMass campus.

UMass spokesman Larry Rivais said most of the buildings and work is being done with energy efficiency a chief goal.

Another project which aims to make the campus greener is the installation of solar panels in the parking lot for the Robsham Visitors Center off Massachusetts Avenue. Several parking spaces will be shielded with a canopy that will have solar photovoltaic cells on top, Rivais said.

Among other construction, Rivais said the John Francis Kennedy Champions Center next to the Mullins Center, with two full-size basketball courts for the basketball teams, is nearing completion.

Also, the South College Academic Facility includes renovation and expansion of the 19th-century building, preparation work is beginning for the Physical Sciences Building near the Lederle Graduate Research Tower, and renovations to the Old Chapel will begin.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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