UMass celebrates construction of Design Building using engineered timber instead of structural steel

Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2015

AMHERST — As the first institutional building east of the Mississippi River to use engineered timber instead of structural steel rises on the University of Massachusetts campus, senior Mohamed El Shamy is learning first-hand about the principles of this innovative construction.

An intern with Suffolk Construction — the firm managing the project — the native of Cairo, Egypt, said he is seeing how research into wood materials translates into a real-world project.

“It’s really enlightening, hands-on learning,” said El Shamy, a student in the Building Construction Technology program. “It’s about learning how to problem-solve and think on your feet a lot.”

When the $52 million building is complete in early 2017, it will bring faculty and staff and about 600 students from the departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning — as well as the Building Construction Technology program — from their antiquated and in some cases deteriorating buildings into a modern space that will allow for better collaboration among the disciplines.

“Bold, beautiful and brilliant, the Design Building will reflect the strengths and future of the campus,” said Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy, who marked the early stages of construction while speaking at a celebration at the North Pleasant Street site Friday morning.

Subbaswamy said the Design Building represents the university’s continued commitment to sustainable practices on campus that has made UMass the 25th-most efficient campus among top-ranked research institutions, according to U.S. News & World Report.

UMass President Marty Meehan said the project is part of an incredible transformation of the flagship campus. “It’s just remarkable to see what’s happening here,” Meehan said.

He also called the building “a national model,” observing that $50 million came from university borrowing and will need to be paid back.

“Excellence costs money, and I just want to say, as the new president of UMass, I will never, ever compromise when it comes to excellence (or) when it comes to quality,” Meehan said.

‘Definitely a leader’

Those who will use the building for offices and classrooms say UMass is a pioneer.

“For our area, we’re definitely a leader,” said Alexander Schreyer, director of the Building Construction Technology program.

In fact, while the building technique using heavy timber is popular in Europe and also commonly used in Australia, UMass will be the first institutional building project in the region to use cross-laminated timbers as the main component in construction.

“It’s a race and we’re winning it,” Schreyer said.

The Design Building’s construction will use 2,500 cubic meters of wood, Schreyer said. Since trees help to sequester carbon, using timber instead of steel and concrete is beneficial. It could be argued, Schreyer explained, that the timber used in the construction corresponds to 2,500 metric tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. Wood also doesn’t produce carbon during the manufacturing process.

“A building of similar size with steel would be detrimental to the environment,” Schreyer said. And the building may be even safer from fire than unprotected steel, he added.

The exposed structural and mechanical elements and a “green roof,” featuring an outdoor courtyard and garden, will serve as both learning laboratories and as ways to reduce energy consumption.

Collaborative space

Architecture Department Chairman Stephen Schrieber said the Design Building will put the efforts of the three departments — representing social and behavioral sciences, humanities and fine arts and natural sciences — on the national map.

“It’s great to be part of a university that invests so much into the arts, humanities and social sciences,” said Schrieber, referring both to the Design Building and the renovation of South College, where additional humanities and fine arts programs are housed.

The new building creates what Schrieber calls an “arts emerald necklace” for the campus — it is next to the Studio Arts Building and across the street from the Fine Arts Center, where his department is currently based.

Its position at the southern edge of the campus also means it is an appropriate link to Amherst and the region.

“Users of the building are very much engaged in the community,” Schrieber said.

Schrieber said he expects there to be a communal feel to the building and more opportunities for students in the three areas of study to build relationships.

“This represents an entirely different model, not only of construction, but of collaboration,” said Katherine Newman, vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Newman said the physical connections inside the new building benefit education. “It’s amazing what can be achieved when people are contiguous to each other,” Newman said.

Subbaswamy praised former U.S. Congressman John Olver of Amherst for advocating for $3 million in a state environmental bond bill that allowed for the change from a steel frame to a wood-frame building.

The 87,000-square-foot building, designed by Boston-based Leers Weinzapfel Associates, is more costly than a same-sized structure made from steel and concrete.

Subbaswamy said Olver pushed for the additional money to show support for the rural economy of lumber and to promote forest health.

While Olver said afterward that the celebration was an exciting day, he downplayed his role in making the Design Building happen, noting that he was in “a position to bring together the three most important people” — referring to state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, the UMass chancellor and the head of the UMass Building Authority.

“It was a decision that’s time had come,” Olver said.

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said she is pleased to see the Design Building happen.

“People will be coming to look at this building and learn from this building from all over the country, and probably all over the world,” Story said.

Following the presentations, Subbaswamy, Meehan and others put on hard hats for a ground-breaking, before inviting those in attendance to sign a large wooden beam that will be used in the building.

Students in the Building Construction Technology program are excited to see the progress and are learning from it.

Kyle Gillen, a senior from Georgetown, said credit should go to the professors for making it happen.

“This is a good mix of basics and new wood technology,” Gillen said. “We’re really fortunate to be here for this building.”

Classes have been visiting the site weekly to document what is happening and illustrate its phases, said Evan Tarbox, a Duxbury junior.

Zach Kushner, a senior from Granby, Connecticut, said he anticipates students will benefit from the future collaborations the building will spawn.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for students of multiple majors to intertwine,” Kushner said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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