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Mass Timber
Zipper Trusses in the new UMass Amherst Design Building.

Mass Timber

Inside the graceful, sustainable, and breathtaking new Design Building.

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When was the last time you entered a newly constructed academic building and deliberately inhaled it? “People are turning into column huggers,” smiles Alex Schreyer, UMass Amherst senior lecturer and program director of building and construction technology, who has witnessed more than one person enter the new Design Building’s central commons, dart a look around, then surreptitiously sniff one of the massive supporting columns.

Because the building is an unusual thing on a university campus—or, for that matter, anywhere: a modern, large-scale structure created primarily of wood.

The shared home of three academic units—the building and construction technology program (in the Department of Environmental Conservation), the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning—creates a stunning sight line opposite the Fine Arts Center on North Pleasant Street. It is a four-story testimony to the viability of building with wood on this scale. “It’s really showing the way forward in new technology,” says Peggi Clouston, associate professor of building and construction technology. “We’re working to get architects, engineers, and builders educated about timber.”

The building itself is a marvel: at 87,000 square feet, it is the largest, most technologically advanced contemporary wood structure in the United States and the first mass-timber structure in the Northeast. It brings together cutting-edge building technologies—such as a zipper truss and a layered composite floor system of concrete, timber, and steel mesh developed by BCT faculty—into a symphony of space, light, sustainability, and community. Exposed building components turn the entire structure into a teaching tool.

We asked faculty and students who use the building to tell us which aspects they most adore.

By The Numbers

  • 87,000 square feet
  • 70,000 cubic feet of wood
  • 500 students
  • 50 faculty


Three-sided central commons: three stories on the east end and four on the west end

When a client, in this case, the university, gives an architect a brief, it includes a list of requirements. We didn’t say explicitly, “Give a big common space.” On the client side, you have to voice your highest aspirations for a project. So we were saying, “We need a space for gathering and for collaboration,” and they were saying, “How can we design a building that gets you that?” For architects, their true skill set is to pull every square inch and throw it at the question. That’s what I try to teach my students—spatial intelligence. Our architects collected every extra square foot that they could to create common spaces that met our highest aspirations. Every time I walk by here, that’s what I think about. Now those spaces are filled all day, every day. When I walked in the building the first day and saw students sitting on this ledge here talking, I practically cried. — Caryn Brause, Assistant Professor, Architecture


Exposed glulam (glued-laminated) frame, cross-laminated timber

Houses are built with wood, but larger structures require greater knowledge about mass timber. Mass timber construction utilizes large sections of wood. These sections are made from individual sticks of lumber that are stacked and glued together. That’s the composite aspect. That way you limit the effect of a defect. A knot or other feature is only an inch or two deep, and that’s as far as it goes. Engineers don’t like variability in their material; they like predictability, and that’s what comes with the composites. It’s a system and becomes much more reliable. We have been building airplanes on this concept—aerospace engineers orient fibers and get sophisticated with their designs. We are at the beginning stages of that: taking those mathematical models and applying them to wood composites. — Peggi Clouston, Associate Professor, Building and Construction Technology


Interdisciplinary, shared studio space for students

I really like the way the studio combines students of architecture and landscape architecture. Before, our department was in the Hills building and architecture was in the Fine Arts Center, so there was no way you would meet architects or see their work. We didn’t like the linear arrangement of the studio the first time, because the last row of desks blocked the view, so we rearranged it ourselves. After we moved those, it created both more space and more enclosed space. — Yuan-Fen (Mimi) Lo, Graduate Student, Landscape Architecture, enrolled in architecture classes


Three-story, folded, cross-laminated timber staircase, low rise-to-run ratio

The stairs are open and they’re beautiful, and they’re shallow so they’re easy to walk on. Stairwells can be dank. There’s an elevator, but who would not want to walk up these stairs with the sunlight coming down, and see the cool things that are happening? So that’s one of my favorite parts of the building, the movement up and down. From the top landing, you can see almost the entire four floors. This is a great people-watching space and a vantage point where you can see all of the various activities. You can get the excitement of this building. —Stephen Schreiber, Professor and Chair, Architecture


Four 9”-diameter tubular glulam struts, four steel tension rods (1–2” in diameter), connection plate, cast-end connection, solid-steel bullet connector

The entire roof garden sits on this open and beautiful zipper-truss structure: this big glue-laminated beam and the diagonals that are tension rods. The round, wooden diagonals are in compression and the metal is in tension. So the steel is being pulled apart and the wood is being squooshed. They’re basically like branches holding the roof up, tied back to the end corners. Best of all, most of the heavy roof weight is then supported by two slender wood columns, like the one at the base of the grand stair, illustrating how strong wood actually is. With this structural system, we have a big, beautiful space because we don’t have to use intermediate columns. It’s a structural win-win. —Alex Schreyer, Senior Lecturer and Program Director, Building and Construction Technology


Courtyard green roof/roof garden

The truss system holds up our green roof, so that fulfills the structural needs and the roof garden fulfills landscape architecture’s needs. The question is, how, with a wood structure, do you support a heavy load like a green roof? To avoid deflection, or bending of the floor, the heavier planting beds are off to the sides and the gathering space is in the middle. The low profile and type of soils require that it’s irrigated. The design concept is an alpine theme—stunted plants and low trees, blueberry bushes—it’s going to look like the top of a mountain. — Michael Davidsohn, Senior Lecturer, Landscape Architecture

Design Building Links

Video: Sustainable Design Building

Building & Construction Technology: The Design Building at UMass Amherst

UMass Design & Construction Management: Project Description


The Design Building construction and design team:

UMass Project Manager: Burt Ewart

Architecture: Andrea Leers FAIA, Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Landscape Design: Stephen Stimson ’83, Stimson Associates

Landscape Contractor: Stephen A. Roberts ’94, Stephen A. Roberts Landscaping

Construction Management: Suffolk Construction