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November 19, 2015
Wood-framed skyscrapers, resistant to fire and earthquakes and made from locally harvested wood, may someday dot the skylines of North American cities. A new building at Washington State University, opening early next year, is already leading the charge.
The $45 million Paccar Environmental Technology Building, a 96,000-square-foot facility delivered by the design-build team of LMN and Skanska, is the first phase of the university’s plan to expand its campus core to the east.
The building will house five of WSU’s longstanding research and development centers, all dedicated to tackling multifaceted environmental issues through interdisciplinary collaboration. Focus areas include sustainable design and construction, water quality and atmospheric sciences.
“Addressing grand societal challenges requires interdisciplinary teams pursuing large-scale grants,” says Don Bender, director of the Composite Materials and Engineering Center. “This is precisely what Paccar is designed to facilitate.”
The Composite Materials and Engineering Center (CMEC) will occupy several laboratories in the new facility, including a high-bay materials testing lab. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows on three sides of the lab make its activities visible to the street, as well as inside to the building’s central lounge and future coffee shop. The strategy is to spur dialogue about environmental research, both within the building and with the campus community at large.
“Mass timber,” the use of cross-laminated timber as a structural material for commercial high-rises and other typologies, is a key area of investigation for the CMEC, building on decades of innovation in the field at WSU. As a result, the western portion of the Paccar building, including the high-bay lab, is framed entirely in cross-laminated timber as well as glue-laminated timber and laminated-veneer lumber.
The history of these engineered wood products is intricately tied to WSU. The CMEC is the modern successor to the Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory founded at WSU in 1949, which participated heavily in the development of a billion-dollar national industry in “up-cycling” wood waste from the timber industry. In the 21st century, as designers and builders seek new ways to increase their use of renewable resources and reduce the carbon impact of new construction, the momentum for this kind of research has only accelerated.
“Mass timber has caused a resurgence of interest in wood construction in the architectural and engineering communities,” says Bender, whose group is conducting federally funded studies to assess the seismic performance and supply chain issues of cross-laminated timber. “A critical issue is the need for education in the wise use of timber in buildings.”
Exemplifying the kind of synergistic thinking that lies behind the Paccar building, CMEC is currently working together with WSU’s Institute for Sustainable Design on a yearlong design studio for architecture and engineering students, called Integrated Design Experience.
CMEC and the Institute for Sustainable Design will share space on the first and second floors of Paccar, and Integrated Design Experience will have a glass-enclosed, dedicated studio adjacent to the high-bay lab. The mission of the studio is to partner with outside organizations on real-world environmental problems.
This year, graduate and undergraduate students in Integrated Design Experience are analyzing the potential of mass timber in Pacific Northwest building markets, working with the nonprofit group Forterra. Guided by faculty and industry experts, students will produce economic models and designs for a series of “benchmark” buildings, such as wood-framed office towers, mid-rise to high-rise multifamily buildings, warehouses and big-box stores.
They will use these studies to assess demand for the product, and research the capacity of local supply chains. In the spring, they will also collaborate with architecture and construction management students at the University of Washington to investigate, among other concepts, the quantities of embodied energy and carbon.
“The idea is to show enough that the organization can carry it forward and implement it,” says Michael Wolcott, director of the Institute for Sustainable Design and a lead faculty member for Integrated Design Experience.
Typically, students in the program produce design concepts for partner organizations up to 20 percent completion.
“They don’t take our design exactly, but our job is to get people to think outside the box,” he says.
A place for research
In the new Paccar facility, design concepts developed by the studio will carry over directly into lab research. Students will be able to test materials and structural assemblies in the high-bay lab, or make use of CMEC’s digital manufacturing facilities to explore complex designs integrating multiple systems. Full mock-ups and prototypes can be constructed in the testing yard behind the building, which includes a reaction slab with a matrix of threaded holes to provide a pre-built foundation for structures.
Wood composites and structures are far from the only area of focus for CMEC.
Other research topics include permeable pavements, biofuels, biochemicals and nanotechnologies, investigated in a variety of specialized laboratories. Much of this work will occur in the eastern part of the building, which is separated from the highly transparent and publicly accessible “showcase” section by secure entries.
While less public, this private “workhorse” section will be no less animated by social interactions and the potential for serendipitous encounters.
Four floors are connected by an open central stairwell, surrounded by open-plan graduate workstations and informal breakout areas on each floor. Graduate students “the students in the trenches doing all the work,” says Wolcott will have visibility from their workstations to laboratories in every specialization.
“It’s all about facilitating interdisciplinary collaborative research,” says Jonathan Yoder, director of the State of Washington Water Research Center and a professor of economics at WSU.
CMEC and the Institute for Sustainable Design will occupy the first and second floors, while the third floor will house the Water Research Center, and the fourth floor will be the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. The Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach is integrated on both upper levels.
The Laboratory for Atmospheric Research well-known for its advanced computer models that provide air-quality forecasting across the Pacific Northwest will have weatherproof roof hatches in its fourth-floor labs that allow researchers to expose instruments directly to the sky, as well as 10-meter-tall instrument towers on the working roof. These instruments provide a baseline measurement for comparison with the laboratory’s mobile lab essentially a van loaded with instruments which deploys from a testing bed at the yard level. In addition, an atmospheric simulation lab will be capable of recreating a variety of atmospheric conditions for smog chemistry studies, one of only a few facilities of its kind in the country.
Wolcott sees the science-oriented research of the upper floors as working to understand the problems that exist in the environment, while the lower floors develop technology to alleviate those problems.
“There’s a saying about unintended consequences,” Wolcott adds. “They result from not considering the problem and the solution at the same time.”
Adrian MacDonald is the communications manager at LMN Architects.