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 …

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California water shortage spurs innovation

When it comes to finding innovative solutions for California’s historic water crisis, wacky ideas such as towing icebergs from the Arctic, piping water from Alaska and shipping snow from Boston’s record-setting blizzards seemed to grab all the headlines.

Beyond those “wildly ambitious” ideas, California has an unprecedented opportunity to refine already existing innovations and create new technologies to quench its four-year drought.

“We have always believed that the rising cost of water would fuel invention,” said Suffolk Construction’s West Region President and Chief Executive Officer, Andy Ball, who has sat on the California Water Commission for five years. “But I would argue there is no better time to come up with innovative ideas for water conservation than a record-breaking drought.”

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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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Embracing sea level rise with resilient design

With sea levels rising fastest on the East Coast, the Gulf of Mexico and in California, finding ways to stem the tide is increasingly difficult because shrinking glaciers continue to add water to the world’s oceans and increased global temperatures are expanding seawater. That’s why some of the brightest and most creative architects, designers and engineers from around the world are now innovating solutions that embrace water by integrating infrastructure that works with the ocean’s projected rise rather than just trying to stop it.

In fact, some notable examples of this emerging philosophy known as resilient design are currently on display at the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) gallery. The winning submissions from the Boston Living with Water competition are being shown through June.

A Google Earth image of the Fort Point Channel and Boston Seaport shows what the landscape looks like today. The artist's rendering above shows the same landscape after the 100-acre neighborhood is raised about 12 feet to combat sea level rise. Both images courtesy of Architerra.

A Google Earth image of the Fort Point Channel and Boston Seaport shows what the landscape looks like today. The artist’s rendering above shows the same landscape after the 100-acre neighborhood is raised about 12 feet to combat sea level rise. Both images courtesy of Architerra.

Similar to the Jacques Rougerie Foundation’s International Architecture Competition and San Francisco’s Rising Tides competition, Boston’s version challenged members of the international AEC industry to design ways to shield the city from sea level rise. These competitions are evidence that the seeds of innovation are being planted right now, to account for sea level rise and that cities such as Boston and San Francisco are giving this crisis the attention it deserves. After all, a report released last year said that Boston could see its harbor rise by as much as seven feet by the year 2100. Just last week, city officials announced that they might allow developments in coastal floodplains to build taller than is currently permitted so that electrical, mechanical and HVAC systems can be designed into the midsection of buildings rather than in the basements. This would not only protect mechanical systems against flooding, but it would mean owners don’t have to sacrifice valuable square footage.

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Green like Fenway Park: Viridian Boston sustainable stats

Designed to achieve LEED® Gold in one of the most walk-able and transit-orientated neighborhoods in the city, Viridian Boston will be nearly as green as the grass it overlooks in Fenway Park.

The Viridian features Agrob Buchtal’s Keratwin K20 Engineered Terracotta Façade System, which insulates a building much better than brick and has tiles that rarely have to be replaced. Adding an HT coating to the tiles can also introduce an air-purifying property that breaks down pollution.

“It’s a bit like having a little forest around your building,” said Dave Traino, a sales consultant at CB Products, Buchtal’s U.S. rep. “For every 10,000 square feet on the building it’s like having 60 or 70 trees around it providing fresher air.”

So in honor of Earth Week, here are the most sustainable attributes of Viridian Boston by the numbers:


Shower/changing room for employees who bike or jog to work instead of driving


Charging stations for electric cars


Percent of projected reduction in actual energy usage compared to a building built with required energy standards


Percent of reduction in post-development site runoff


Percent of reduction in water use due to ultra low-flow faucets, toilets and showerheads


Roughly the percent of construction waste recycled or otherwise diverted from landfills


Bike spaces in the underground garage in addition to a dozen bike racks outside the building on Boylston Street

Source: Bruner/Cott & Associates LEED & Sustainable Design Consultant Erica Downs

Cutting concrete’s carbon footprint

Emitting up to five percent of man-made carbon dioxide on earth, the cement industry is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter worldwide behind power generation. So it stands to reason that finding a more sustainable alternative to standard concrete, which typically contains 10 to 15 percent cement, could have far reaching impacts.

A groundbreaking company based in Halifax, Canada has done just that. CarbonCure Technologies has developed a proprietary technology that allows concrete manufacturers to produce a concrete that sequesters waste carbon dioxide during the manufacturing process to reduce emissions by about 10 to 15 percent on average.

Let that sink in for a second: a concrete that captures carbon dioxide. Continue Reading ›