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August 31, 2023

UM looks to mass timber to mark forestry heritage — and future

  • A low-carbon structural design aims to inspire the next generation of students, and bolster the state’s timber industry.
    ZGF Architects




    People love Montana for a reason: they feel a deep connection to the land and its natural resources. With more than 25 million acres of forest, and the nation’s most-visited national parks, sustainable forest management plays a critical role in the state’s economy, its fight against climate change, and its determination to preserve the land for future generations.

    In Missoula, home to the University of Montana, forestry represents heritage — but also opportunity for innovation. The W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation is a globally recognized leader for its academic programs, but time has taken a toll on its current facilities.

    The University of Montana is currently fundraising for a new 56,000 square-foot mass timber science lab and teaching complex, designed by ZGF Architects in association with A&E Design, which will co-locate disparate academic and research activities under one roof, host core courses offered to all students, and create a campus focal point for the Grizzly community and prospective students.

    Bringing the forest inside

    Images courtesy of ZGF [enlarge]
    The proposed 56,000-square-foot mass timber science lab and teaching complex, designed by ZGF Architects in association with A&E Design.

    A key component of the project is demonstrating the potential of mass timber construction — large, structural components made by gluing smaller pieces of wood together to form beams (glulam beams) or panels for wall or roof and floor decks (cross laminated timber, or CLT). Areas of exploration include:

    • Creating a living-learning environment that exposes students and visitors to mass timber’s inherent beauty, strength, flexibility, and low carbon footprint. The building will serve as a teaching tool for the possibilities of mass timber design, material application, and supply chain transparency.

    • Attracting industry partners to provide hands-on research and experiential learning opportunities to solve real-world problems.

    • Showcasing the possibilities of new and innovative market solutions while linking students to the forestry industry they will work in after graduation.

    • Highlighting and celebrating Montana’s rich history in the timber industry as well as the multitude of ongoing efforts to ensure it is a sustainable industry far into the future.

    Carbon benefits

    The building’s size and location make it an ideal candidate for exploring a low-carbon structural design. Mass timber assemblies take less energy and carbon emissions to extract and manufacture than steel or concrete structural approaches. Additionally, the wood stores the carbon it absorbed through sequestration while the trees were growing in the forest. These two wood-specific carbon benefits can reduce the project’s structural carbon footprint by more than 50%. To reduce the carbon impact of the project even further, the team is exploring the potential to reuse the wood structure, in addition to using low-carbon concrete technologies and steel produced from clean-energy grids.

    The proposed program includes a mix of teaching and research labs, computer labs, active learning classrooms, seminar rooms, faculty offices, and a multipurpose room for larger gatherings. Collaboration spaces throughout the building aims to spark student-faculty engagement and cross-pollination of ideas across departments and disciplines.

    In the heart of the building, an activated three-level atrium supported by towering Douglas Fir glulam columns is designed to capture the expansive feeling of being in the forest. Interior glazing and transparency showcase new ways of thinking about forest management.

    Sourcing Goals

    An energized atrium with a central grandstand stair will provide gathering space for events, lectures and discussions.

    Sourcing the mass timber regionally and tracing it back to the forests of origin will serve double duty, celebrating Montana’s wood products industry and helping stimulate demand in a rapidly-growing market.

    Three wood sourcing goals emerged from our engagement with the Franke College:

    • Cultivate connections between the Franke College and the regional timber industry.

    The project will target manufacturers in Montana and Pacific Northwest supply chains. Our team researched three aspects of mass timber manufacturing — growing, milling, and fabricating — to identify supply chain opportunities within the state and region. The goal was not to establish a rigid requirement for only local sourcing, but to maximize material coming from Montana.

    • Trace the timber back to its forests of origin to measure impact.

    Transparency and tracking are key to making the connections between the Franke College, community, ecology, and economy. Stories of how the project’s wood was sustainably grown in the region, who harvested it, and its broader social and environmental impact will connect students to the forestry models and conservation research they study.

    The project will work with manufacturers and lumber mills to track log purchasing history back to the product’s forest of origin and tell the local story of that wood through narrative, mapping infographics, including interviews with landowners to document their stories. For a Montana-based manufacturer or mill, tracing back to the forest of origin will likely show a connection to federal contracts, which typically focus on forest restoration and engage the state’s network of community-based forest collaborative groups to co-create management objectives.

    • Scale up Montana forest restoration through hybrid-species CLT panels.

    Montana is unique in the fact that its public lands account for roughly 57% of the state’s wood harvest per year, based on 2018 data. This presents a meaningful opportunity for forest restoration and economic development. These harvests typically prioritize forest health treatments related to wildfire, drought and disease resilience in the state’s slower growing forests.

    As a result, the harvested forests produce smaller diameter and lower grade timber from a multitude of different species. Increasing use from these types of harvests into durable wood products like mass timber could increase their financial viability while supporting active forest management. However, only so much of this product can go into CLT panel manufacturing, where many panel types typically only use higher quality wood that excludes much of the product coming from this type of restoration forestry.

    A market product that accommodates more of the outputs from this type of forestry is needed. This can be achieved through alternative CLT layups, for instance, that use lower grade timber for certain layers of the panel, or even different species. Our proposed project received letters of support from two regional manufacturers — Smartlam North America (Columbia Falls, Mont.) and Vaagen Brothers Lumber (Colville, Wash.) — to explore using lower grade lamstock and hybrid-species CLT panels.

    New heritage

    This building will embody the University of Montana’s commitment to sustainability and connection to the land and surrounding communities — all while celebrating the past and future of Montana’s wood products industry.

    Todd Stine is the managing partner in ZGF’s Seattle office. Ryan Cheng is a design principal in ZGF’s Seattle office. Jacob Dunn is a principal and building performance specialist in ZGF’s Portland office.

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