Watch: High-tech timber erected at UMass

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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 …

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Wood construction resurges at UMass

Two-thirds of Chicago was constructed of wood when a devastating fire ripped through the city 144 years ago this week.

The Great Chicago Fire burned from Oct. 8-10 in 1871.

The three-day fire killed 300 people, destroyed 17,500 buildings and paved the way for the kind of steel and concrete construction that dominates the industry to this day. In fact, Chicago’s 10-story Home Insurance Building became the nation’s first steel “skyscraper” 13 years after the fire. Owners and architects hardly looked back at wood.

The Great Chicago Fire also prompted new building codes in cities across the country that still hamper the widespread adoption of modern wood construction. But that’s beginning to change as recent research has found that new innovative heavy timber systems are, in fact, safe in fires. Moreover, these systems are environmentally friendly and can rise as high as 12 stories or more. Advocates of this high-tech wood construction, known as “mass timber,” are forcing regulators and owners in the United States to take the resurgence of timber-frame construction more seriously.

“This is the future of construction,” Robert Malczyk of Vancouver-based Equilibrium Consulting told us.

While mass timber has been hugely popular in Europe for years, due in part to more progressive building and environmental regulations, it still hasn’t caught on here. But a major victory for an American resurgence of wood construction was recently won in Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst received a variance to the state building code to build an 86,000-square-foot mass timber building.

Chicago's steel-framed Home Insurance Building under construction.

Chicago’s steel-framed Home Insurance Building under construction.

The $52 million Design Building is believed to be the first of its size in the U.S. to feature an innovative wood system known as cross-laminated timber, or CLTs, which are used as part of a composite wood-concrete floor assembly.

When the structure is complete in 2017 it will provide major ammunition for proponents of modern wood construction who are quick to note that CLT slabs make the 2x4s in your house look like toothpicks.

It will be to wood what the Home Insurance Building was to steel.

“The UMass Design Building will act as an ambassador,” Malczyk, who is consulting on the project, said. “People will be able to walk in the building and have this moment where they realize ‘Wow, wood doesn’t have to be like in our houses.’”

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A building’s skin and bones—literally? The coming world of engineered living materials

When lightning strikes, a tree can often repair the damage by generating another layer of bark to cover the gash. But if that same bolt from above lashes a wood-frame house instead, call the remodelers. Even though the house’s exterior walls are essentially made of trees, the material lost its adaptive quality when lumberjacks felled those mighty pines or oaks.

In the words of scientist Justin Gallivan of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), wood is “rendered inert” when a tree is chopped down. That neutralizes all the advantages of a living material. In their natural state, trees react and adapt to wounds and the weather. So do coral reefs—not to mention your own skin.

What if living materials, with those same self-healing properties, could be grown artificially to the size and strength required to construct a house? Or a skyscraper? Is that possible? That’s what DARPA wants to find out. The agency is soliciting research proposals aimed at the creation of what it calls “engineered living materials (ELM).”

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DARPA envisions walls that fix themselves, non-fading surfaces, and driveways that absorb oil spills without a trace. (Source: DARPA)

“Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources,” Gallivan said to the press in August when announcing the ELM program. “And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Today, a building’s envelope is often called its “skin,” while the steel frame of a building is known as its skeletal structure, or even its “bones.” In DARPA’s imagined future, these terms will cease to be merely rhetorical. And the sustainability benefits of bio-building might be substantial, when you consider the carbon emissions generated in the production of conventional materials such as concrete.

But DARPA didn’t pull this sci-fi-sounding concept out of thin air. Biochemists and engineers around the globe are already tinkering with limited forms of biomimetic (or life-imitating) materials, as you’ll see below. Gallivan’s vision of self-healing living walls is perhaps the logical extension of these various technologies, and the ELM program might prove the catalyst needed for skin-and-bone to replace brick-and-mortar.

Bacteria brickyard

One inspiration for the ELM program is a start-up that grows bricks in a lab. Yes, grows. The idea occurred to architect Ginger Dosier when she learned that coral polyps—tiny marine animals—create the hard, rocklike substance sandstone naturally. She co-founded the company, bioMASON, with her husband, Michael—like her, an architect and a self-taught scientist. (They have help from a staff of college-taught scientists.)

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The lab-grown bricks. (Source: bioMASON)

In their lab in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the bioMASON team places sand into molds and injects it with trillions of microorganisms (Sporosarcina pasteurii, if you must know), which they feed water and a calcium solution. The bacteria bind with the grains of sand, generating a natural cement that becomes heavy and hardens. The bricks are ready in two to five days.

Compare that with the way traditional bricks are manufactured, by digging up clay (which could be better put to use in agricultural soil) and firing it in a kiln at 2,000 degrees for three to five days. This process uses up lots of fuel and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere—800 million tons of it per year, by some estimates. Keep in mind, brick is still the most common building material worldwide, with Asia alone making 1.2 trillion bricks a year.

According to Acorn Innovestments, which provided bioMASON with seed funds, third-party testing determined that the bio-bricks have a strength comparable to traditional masonry, though for now, the start-up is only selling the bricks for use in paving. The bioMASON lab can produce 1,500 bricks a week, and they’re moving next month to a larger facility that will enable them to make 5,000 bricks every two days.

But the Dosiers hope to truly make an impact by shipping the bacteria solution—just one hand-held vial can make 500 bricks—across the globe to builders who can mix it with local sand, whether from nearby deserts (looking at you, Los Angeles) or quarries. Continue Reading ›

Best of the Build Smart Blog 2016

Before we pop the bubbly and close the book on year two of the Build Smart Blog, let’s take a look back at some of our favorite posts of 2016. In case you missed them the first time around, here are five stories that captured our imagination, revealing ways that tomorrow’s built environment might take shape, and delving into the advances in architecture, engineering and construction that make these visions attainable.

Super Bowl shuffle: Stadiums of the future will feature interactive and civic spaces: Putting the brakes on your tailgate party to go watch the game? So early 21st century. Future fans will enjoy tailgating inside the stadium. That stadium, by the way, will expand and contract depending on the size of the event, for year-round use.

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Office space of tomorrow: Millennials and “accidental encounters” drive future of office design: Say goodbye to static rows of cubes. Open plans, smart technology, and greater attention to collaboration and wellness are driving changes in the corporate workplace. What does this mean for designers and builders?

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Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod: For a new twist on an old ceremony, Suffolk set the bar high with its “virtual groundbreaking.” But what’s the story behind groundbreakings? When we dug into it (no pun intended), we discovered the ancient roots and colorful past of this familiar construction tradition.

MIT students win Hyperloop competition: Elon Musk’s audacious Hyperloop—a magnetic transit system taking passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes—will require a massive infrastructure build. And when it comes to making the Hyperloop train go, the smartest engineers in the room might be a team of students from MIT.

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High-tech timber erected at UMass: This ain’t your great-grandfather’s wood construction. Cross-laminated timber makes for a building that is sustainable, fire resistant, and versatile. See why this story remains one of our most popular.

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We look forward to bringing you more stories about cool stuff happening in the construction industry in 2017! Got your own story ideas? Send them to Patrick L. Kennedy at PKennedy@suffolk.com.