umass amherst design building banner

Innovative Building on College Campus Gets Attention, Sets Records

When students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts walked into their new Design Building late last month, they entered a building that is far different from others on campus.

While the $52 million Design Building sports a modern, highly aesthetic design by Boston based architects Leers Weinzapfel Associates, it is the material technology in the construction that is truly unique.

The structure of the 87,000-square-foot building is a combination of glue-laminate beams and steel, which are fabricated and integrated using computer modeling to create joinery that is precise within faction of an inch and go together like an erector set.

“However the newest technology is the elevated floor construction which incorporates cross-laminated timber, or CLT decking with a concrete topping in a composite floor system.  Using technology developed at the UMass Building and Construction Technology Department, CLT decking is fabricated with expanded metal splines which, when topped with normal concrete slab, create a floor system that is very stiff, making long spans more sustainable than steel and concrete,” said David H. Billings, AIA, a Hill International Project Director who oversees the firm’s work on the project.

CLT allows for both design innovation and strength.  “The thing that makes CLT unique is that, in a building this size, a commercial building, it has this composite design, meaning it is wood that works in conjunction with concrete to make a complete structure,” added Martin P. Goulet, a Hill Senior Project Manager and the senior site representative on the project.

Goulet has managed projects on the 1,450-acre UMass Amherst campus before.  Previous projects have included an innovative, co-generating central heating plant, and a new campus recreation center with the latest technological bells and whistles.  Incorporating CLT into the design and construction raises the university’s innovation bar even higher, he said.

“It’s a new method that can help meet today’s [highly aesthetic] design standards,” Goulet explained.

According to Leers Weinzapfel Associates, the building also houses the largest installation of wood-concrete composite floors in North America.  CLT has been used extensively in Europe since the mid-1990s, but has yet to be used with any frequency in the U.S. and Canada, especially on large buildings.  Goulet expects that to soon change, as increasing numbers of architects, designers and public and private project owners see the benefits of CLT.

CLT panels used in construction vary in size, depending upon the application. They are created by stacking and gluing together 5 to 7 layers in alternating ordination 2×6 boards to form panels that are 12 feet wide by 40 feet long.  The CLT panels used at UMass at Amherst originated in Canada, prefabricated by Nordic Engineered Timber, one of only a handful of North American manufacturers. It is hoped that, as a demonstration of this technology, the Design Building will help foster expansion for this manufacturing and develop underutilized timber resources in New England.

“The wood is black spruce.  It’s a sustainable wood product, and grown in sustainable forests in the North Woods of Canada.  So, it’s highly renewable,” Billings said.

CLT’s low carbon footprint and the building’s emphasis on sustainable construction, is appealing to university staff and students.

The product also is highly fire resistant, able to last up to three hours in a fire, instead of the industry-standard two hours.  And, the material reportedly retains 75 percent of its strength even after fire.  Because of the composite nature of CLT, it also does of good job of sound control.

Because it is prefabricated, building with CLT also saves time—a precious commodity in any construction schedule.

The use of CLT has long been advocated by UMass at Amherst’s Building and Construction Technology Department. The new Design Building had initially been designed for traditional steel and concrete construction. But, department staff and students very much wanted wood structure, one that would serve as a learning tool for the university’s growing number of BC&T students.

“Staff here have been advocating for this type of structure for years, and they’ve even done testing of the material right here in their lab.  There’s a real, vested interest.  The end-users of this building are very passionate about this type of design, and they eventually caught the attention of the University Chancellor, Kumble R. Subbaswamy,” Goulet said.

Billings agreed.  “Both the design faculty and the design students have been involved from the very beginning,” he said. “The project has been a real laboratory for the students over the past two years.”

“Hill has instituted a rigorous quality control program to help ensure that the new material performs as promised,” Billings said.  “We’ve insisted on a quality control and quality assurance program that addresses the unique nature of the building, and have brought in third-party consultants and testing agencies to help.”

Goulet and Billings each have more than three decades of experience in construction and project management.  “None of us has ever seen this type of building being built,” Goulet said.  “We knew this building would require some new QA/QC challenges, and Hill set up several meetings with the CM, testing agency and Designers to develop a careful approach to quality control.”

Consistent and open communication, scrupulous documentation and reporting, and good measures of team-building and diplomacy help keep the entire project team on course.

Teamwork, in particular, was essential.  “One of the things we really tried to do, from the very beginning of the project, was to help create a collaborative team among the faculty, the [university] facilities group, the CM and the design team.  It’s a focus that the university wanted, and it’s always been our focus,” Billings said.

“Coordination was vitally important, in part, because no one really builds with big timbers like this anymore.  There were a lot of things to work out.  For example, we had to get permission from the state to build this way,” Billings added.

The Design Building houses three major academic programs: Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, Architecture and Building and Construction Technology, and will function as an integrated center for the education and study of the built environment.

The building includes studios, workshops, testing lab, classrooms, administrative space and conference rooms.  A portion of the building is three stories and the other is four, to fit the natural slope on which it’s being built.

More than 500 students and 50 faculty members from four departments will use the building, which has been designed to be open and airy, with ample flexible space and lots natural light. Much of the CLT used on the interior is exposed, Goulet added.

“The level of interest is enormous.  Everyone is so excited. They’re walking by and taking pictures all the time, and want to take tours.  There is huge public interest in this project.  It’s a banner project for the UMass system,” Goulet said.

Faculty at other colleges and universities, as well as architects and others in the construction industry, also have been clamoring for a chance to see the building, Billings added.

Billings is confident the students will like what they see and experience.  “The whole design concept is very innovative and very unique,” he said.  “We’re using technology in new and different ways, and it’s created a really beautiful space.”

by Tricia M. McCunney, Hill International, Inc.