Mass Timber Paves Way for Next-Gen in Sustainable Architecture

Global design practice wins prestigious US award.

Sun 25 Jun 23


Mass timber devotee Perkins & Will, a global design practice and the second largest architecture firm by revenue in the US, has won one of the country’s most significant design prizes – the American Institute of Architects National Award for 2023.

Awarded in March this year, the design win  recognises the University of Washington’s Life Sciences Building (LSB) and the architect’s collaborative research-based approach to climate action and healthy design

The Life Sciences Building (LSB), includes a 20,000 square-foot greenhouse, and creates a new centerpiece for UW Biology.

Footage courtesy of @universityofwashington

Home to the largest undergraduate major on campus, UW Biology educates more STEM students than any other program in Washington.

“Wood needs to become the rule rather than the exception,” says Perkins&Will president and CEO Phil Harrison who is based at the studio’s HQ in Chicago.

“Our rapidly growing portfolio of timber environments is paving the way for a new generation of sustainable architecture and design,” he said.

“Engineered wood is the new frontier of healthy living, working, and learning. We recognise heavy timber has the potential to radically realign a building’s relationship with embodied carbon.

“From the first stages of design to the recyclability of a structure at the end of its life, mass timber has a sustainable option at its core; it’s a renewable material that also offers stunning aesthetics.”

One of the design’s most unique elements is the lift core, wrapped in custom-milled slabs from 200-foot Douglas fir trees.

The lift core, which is one of the most unique design elements – where 200 foot Douglas fir trees are wrapped around the lift core. (Photo credit: Kevin Scott)

Designed to mimic the way the trees appeared in the woods, the wide base of the trees on the first floor progressively narrows and tapers as it rises to the floors above.

A site plan showing the lift core across the six floors.

The nine trees from a forest in the Olympic Peninsula were donated by Leopold-Freeman Forests, LLC, as part of Scott and Susan Freeman’s watershed restoration efforts described in the book Saving Tarboo Creek.

The building is just steps away from Seattle’s largest pedestrian trail is a vibrant greenhouse that invites the community to engage with and experience the science happening within. (Photo credit: Perkins & Will)

Harrison adds: “Mass timber differs from the light wood frames of suburban homes or strip malls. Rather, it’s stronger, resilient, long-lasting and sustainable, made from many different types of fast-growing hardwoods that are adjoined with adhesives and fasteners.”

“With the production of architectural steel accounting for 5% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, mass timber is a clean, green, renewable alternative.”

Harrison says mass timber can be used in a variety of ways, from classic post-and-beam construction to experimental applications such as pre-fabrication and 3D printed structures.

The award winning project successfully achieved LEED Gold certification.

“Today, some of the most popular products are glulam, CLT, and more recently, dowel laminated timber, a 100% wood-based product that uses wooden joinery rather than glues or fasteners, meeting even the most ambitious ecological standards,” he says.

“When evaluated on a project-by-project basis, it’s clear that the variety of options available align with a variety of sustainability standards and budgets, allowing for holistic customisation of a project.”

Harrison reflects: “Wood has been a principal building material since the earliest eras of human history. Even today we have excellent examples of wood-framed construction that have lasted several centuries.

Dr Werner A. Kurz, lead developer and researcher for the National Forest Carbon Accounting System for Canada, cites a 600-year-old wooden home and retail outlet in Switzerland.

The building is an example of timber’s resilience, a key factor in Dr Kurz’s work on constructing for carbon sequestering over time.

He says when a material is proven to be this strong, resilient, and sustainable, it begs the question: why not build our cities with wood?

Referring to resource, Phil Harrison says sustainable hardwood and conifer forests are one of the world’s most powerful tools in the battle against CO2 emissions.

Footage courtesy of @SFMCanada

“The vast forests of the northern hemisphere, as well as tropical rainforests along the equator naturally and efficiently absorb greenhouse gases.”

“They have an ability to regenerate at a more rapid pace than fossil fuels and other processed building materials.”

“However,” says Harrison, “a perennial concern for many people is the question of wood scarcity.”

Sustainable hardwood and conifer forests are one of the world’s most powerful tools in the battle against CO2 emissions.

This is addressed by Dr Kurz: “Even if all of Canada’s commercial foresting were geared toward architecture in cities, we would still have thousands of acres of forest left. “

“And that supply could be bolstered by looking to sustainable, certified forest management techniques, as well as time-honoured traditions exercised in countries such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands.”

“As an example, with effective and smart forest management, we can harvest the timber products we need to build our cities in ways that not only benefit the urban landscape, but the forestry sector as well.

“Young forests, the types that produce the timber for mass-market construction materials, are even better at absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, and by cultivating them for commercial use we can save the old-growth forests from exploitation.

“By looking to sustainable forest management, we can offer the high-quality wood products the market needs,” says D. Kurz, who also sees this effort going hand-in-hand with reducing fossil fuel emissions worldwide.”

Phil Harrison says speed is also achieved, in part, through the relative light weight of mass timber compared to steel and cement.

 Other sustainable features include operable windows for natural ventilation cooling, chilled beams and waves, a water reclamation system for greenhouse irrigation, radiant floors and rooftop solar panels.

“This is an inherent benefit, and one that cannot be overstated – no engineering is required to lighten the material.”

“Speed played an important role in planning for a confidential timber project in the northernmost reaches of Canada.”

“With an exceptionally short season for construction, our design for a remote workers’ camp – a temporary building typology that offers living units for oil and gas workers in remote tundra regions – took advantage of mass timber’s flexibility.”

“We developed a kit-of-parts and assembled all the wood pieces offsite to be delivered and then quickly assembled in just a matter of weeks, without sacrificing comfort or style.”

“Worker’s camps of this sort are often uncomfortable, raw spaces laid out like shipping containers with minimal regard for the well-being of the inhabitants.”

“With the warmth and high-quality character of timber, however, our team was able to offer an inviting home with built-in amenities and a central layout for socialising.”

According to Harrison, the project also allowed the firm to push the sustainability envelope for the client.

“And the timber parts can be easily taken apart, stored, or transported to a new site as necessary.”

“The ability to easily assemble and dismantle mass timber environments promises a regenerative, rather than disposable, lifecycle for building materials.”

“The Canadian worker’s camp was an exciting way to reimagine the status quo and use the inherent qualities of mass timber to elevate the experience of each worker.”

Harrison adds: “While there is still so much more to research, experiment with, and learn, mass timber has already proven its benefits. Both resilient and beautiful, wood structural products are entering the market at a rapid pace, promising more competitive pricing, technical refinement, and increased demand in the very near future.

“We’re excited to be pioneers in this material renaissance, sharing our knowledge and insight with the industry, and pushing architecture and design to go greener.”


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