The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Green Design

The Design Building gives sustainable research, education, and construction high visibility
  • Building and Construction Technology faculty Alex Schreyer and Peggi Clouston sit outside on a mock-up bench of composite materials.

The 87,500-square-foot building, which will serve as home to three academic departments, is a large-scale learning laboratory offering students hands-on experience with sustainable architectural and landscape design, materials research, and building technology.

In the first-floor lobby of Holdsworth Hall sits an unusual bench. Seen from the side, its unfinished edges show three layers of wood topped by a layer of pink insulation topped by a thin concrete slab. Slender pieces of vertically embedded metal bind the wood to the polished concrete top.

Produced as a student project in the Building and Construction Technology (BCT) program, the bench is a scaled-down example of applying a modern technical twist to a centuries-old construction material. Timber—which, thanks to its sustainable qualities, is enjoying new popularity—is used here in a structural composite beam system.

The bench also serves as an example of the kind of hands-on learning opportunities that the campus’s 87,500-square-foot Design Building will offer. Now under construction next to the Studio Arts Building and due to open in January 2017, it will serve as home to BCT and two departments, Architecture and Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning. In essence, it will be a large-scale learning laboratory offering students hands-on experience with sustainable architectural and landscape design, materials research, and the latest building technology.

“That was something we wanted for the building,” says Alexander Schreyer, director of the BCT Program. “Every component and the landscape surrounding will enable us learn from it.”

The Holdsworth Hall bench shows that this learning has already begun. The students who built it employed the same construction technique to be featured in the building’s floors, which will be built up of several layers of cross-laminated timber (CLT, a new solid-wood product), a layer of insulation for sound absorption, and a polished concrete surface on top, all held together by thin but strong steel connectors.

“This structural system,” notes Peggi Clouston, an associate professor of wood engineering in the BCT program, “has been extensively studied by our research group on campus and has already demonstrated many improvements over conventional construction methods.”

Given its environmental benefits, timber-frame construction is gaining new favor these days. Because wood is a carbon-neutral material that absorbs and stores carbon during growth, timber-framed buildings have smaller carbon footprints than their steel-framed cousins. Wood is also renewable, non-toxic, and biodegradable, and can be sourced from sustainably managed forests. Clouston was recently awarded a $390,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop cross-laminated timber from low-value Northeastern species. Her co-investigators are Schreyer and Sanjay Arwade of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Creating that high-value market for low-value wood helps to create green jobs and spur economic development for the local forest industry.

“Timber-framed buildings,” says Clouston, “can be designed to be remarkably durable and long-lasting. In fact, we’re talking about building high-rises out of wood now.” It was therefore fortunate when in the summer of 2014 UMass Amherst’s leadership joined with local politicians in seizing the chance to make the new Design Building a showpiece of modern wood construction.

While the methods being used in the building have been thoroughly tested in Europe and Canada, they’re still fairly novel in the U.S. Schreyer says that the Design Building will be the “most technologically advanced wood structure” on the East Coast and offer a unique learning opportunity, not just for people on campus but also for designers and builders in the region. Schreyer, Clouston, and their colleagues have worked closely with the building’s designer, Boston’s Leers Weinzapfel Associates, to ensure that students will learn not only in the newly constructed classrooms and labs but from the building itself—an open, sunny space with plenty of windows and skylights.

Throughout the building, students will observe sustainable features, from low-flow water fixtures to lights that automatically turn off when sensors indicate that a room is empty. The heating and ventilation systems will be highly energy-efficient, and space will be left on the roof for possible installation of solar panels.

A portion of the building will have a “green roof” outdoor courtyard where students will be able to enjoy a rooftop garden. They will also use it to study the benefits of green roofs, which prevent storm water runoff and maintain moisture, keeping the building cooler and reducing the need for air-conditioning. In addition, they will study the building’s rainwater retention system, which will collect water from the roof and channel it to bioswales, landscape elements that filter out pesticides and other harmful chemicals.

The Design Building is the latest example of UMass Amherst’s commitment to sustainable building. Sixteen campus buildings meet the university’s stringent Green Building Guidelines, which call for water and energy efficiency, the use of “green” building materials, and other environmentally sound practices. Seven campus buildings have received LEED certification, meeting the comprehensive standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council, and several more are awaiting certification. The Design Building is on target for LEED Gold or possibly Platinum certification.

The new building will also create opportunities for interdisciplinary learning by bringing the Architecture, Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning, and Building & Construction Technology departments and programs together under one roof. That will allow students and faculty to work collaboratively; for example, Schreyer says, architecture students will be able to see how students in building and construction technology test the materials that they will eventually use in their designs. That integrated approach, he says, reflects an industry trend of planners, designers, materials developers, and builders working closely throughout the construction process—an approach, he adds, more efficient and less wasteful of resources.

The layout of the Design Building lends itself to easy sharing and observation. At the center will be a large enclosed common area, flooded with natural light. Studios, testing labs, and workshops looking on to the atrium will showcase the work happening inside. A glass-enclosed exhibit space on the first floor, visible from North Pleasant Street, will allow students and faculty to display their projects.

While the new building won’t be ready for occupancy for more than a year, students have already begun reaping its educational benefits. This summer, as groundwork began at the site, student interns working with the project and construction managers reported on its progress and what they’d learned via a blog. As construction moves forward, students can follow the process up close, thanks to two time-lapse cameras at the site.

Students in the BCT, architecture, and landscape architecture programs are not the only ones who will benefit from the Design Building. Features like a café and attractive interior and exterior courtyards will draw a wide range of students and visitors to the building. Because it is in a high-traffic part of campus—near the Haigis Mall, Fine Arts Center, and Campus Pond, and en route to a busy bus stop—large numbers of students will pass by its glass-walled studios and exterior spaces, where students will work on larger demonstration projects. “Visibility will be huge in comparison to what we have now,” Clouston says. “You won’t be able to help noticing what’s happening.”

To which Schreyer adds, “Everyone will then see and learn about the state of the art of sustainable built environments up close.”

Maureen Turner