Watch: High-tech timber erected at UMass


High-tech wood panels known as cross-laminated timber (CLT) are replacing concrete slabs on the UMass Design Building. Featuring three to nine layers of lumber glued together, CLTs are like plywood on steroids. (Courtesy ReTHINKWood)

In October we wrote about a revolutionary project using “mass timber” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Now that it is actually being erected, the Suffolk Construction team managing the project invited us to the job site to interview the folks responsible for this first-of-its-kind structure.

Arriving on a perfectly sunny day, it was hard to miss the building rising from the campus. Massive large timber columns, beams and panels form a structural frame that is strikingly solid and beautiful. The “high-tech wood” is light, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing. It’s not your typical composite material. You can actually see the grains in the columns that will ultimately be left exposed inside the 86,000-square-foot UMass Design Building.

Don’t forget to reread our original post to learn more about this innovative building and the wood construction movement …

1. UMA IDB_exterior_View from across NPleasant

5. UMA IDB_Skylight Commons

When the UMass Design Building opens next year it will be the first major example of high-tech wood construction in this country that owners and architects can actually visit. (Renderings courtesy Leers Weinzapfel Associates)

After the Design Building opens next year, advocates for wood construction hope it will serve as a proof point for owners and architects that this type of construction is not only feasible but desirable. There’s already evidence that building with wood is gaining some momentum in other parts of the country. Planning is underway for a 12-story building in Portland, Oregon and a 10-story structure in New York City.

So what do you think? Will this be a movement in the construction industry? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.


  1. Michael Kearns

    1. How does the embodied energy compare to a more traditional New England academic building structure of steel and concrete?
    2. Was there cost premium for this new structure technology? And if so do you see this option becoming more cost effective if more widely adopted and more suppliers/installers emerge?


    • 1. Embodied energy usually comes out quite favorably for wood, especially when one also counts offsets (=not using steel etc.). In this building, the concrete slabs are pretty much the same as for a steel building (~4″ topping). The steel frame, however, is replaced with glulams, which have very low embodied energy, the steel decking is replaced by CLT slabs, and the CMU or concrete shaft walls are replaced by CLT shaft walls. Another important number is sequestered carbon, becasue the amount of wood that is in this building removed a significant amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.
      2. There is always a cost range for any material option. Given the non-orthogonal building shape, lots of (beautiful) custom connectors, and a few other things, I am guessing we will be more expensive than steel (Suffolk can likely answer this one better). Add to that the fact that this was a first for this region. However, for example CLT-only buildings can be erected extremely fast and likely at a lower price point. Using structure=finish everywhere also removes other cost items.


      • Steve Colombo

        Alex, congratulations on this innovative use of wood. Just a quick note regarding carbon stored in the wood in the building – you have to compare it to the baseline of what would have been the fate of the trees if not harvested. Inevitably, some of the carbon from the trees is released after harvesting, plus there are CO2 emissions from harvest, transport, manufacturing. It would not be for a length of time after forests regenerate that the net carbon stored would provide a net increase in total stored C. Projects like yours will reduce atmospheric CO2, just not immediately.


  2. john sykes

    lots of envy here in California, this a very cool building. is it classified as a type 1 or type 2 construction?


    • This is a Type IV-HT (heavy timber) building, which is quite interesting from the building code perspective, because you can build approximately as large as Type II-A. The glulam columns and beams were always included in the IBC, but starting this year, the floors (CLT) are also part of Type IV-HT. Only our composite floor system (wood-concrete composite) is still not in the code.


  3. Lynda Murphy

    Great innovation! Congratulations to the Project Team at Suffolk. Brilliant.


    • suffolkconstruction

      Hi Michael and John. Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. I had Alex at UMass field your questions as he is the expert. Hope his responses are helpful.


  4. Brian Bishop

    Great project! Were the CLT panels from New England? I’m wondering if shipping the panels to the site would increase the cost / decrease the sustainability?


    • The panels were actually from Quebec (Nordic). There are only a few North American producers at this point: Nordic, Structurelam, Smartlam, DR Johnson. Would be great if they were from the NE or used our wood, but that’s only in the research stage. Not sure about cost differences, but usually transport does not contribute too much to embodied energy.


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