UMass had a vision for sustainability and making The John W. Olver Design Building the first of its kind.
Here’s how we shared that vision and achieved UMass’s goals.
The Olver Building is the largest and most technologically advanced academic contemporary wood structure in the U.S. The building is the first of its kind in the U.S. to feature an innovative high-tech steel and wood construction system known as cross-laminated timber, or CLTs.
Cross-laminated timber is one category of engineered timber, with the other category being glulam timber. Timber boards are stacked on top of one another in layers. For cross-laminated timber, the boards are stacked perpendicular to each other. For glulam timber, the boards are stacked going the same way. For the UMass project, the panels were seven layers, and even nine layers for the roof. Each layer is glued to each other with a non-toxic and environmentally-friendly adhesive, then hydraulically pressed to achieve strength. The engineering behind this process makes the panels strong enough to replace concrete, masonry and even steel. This was critical in the UMass project because the whole structure is timber.
Cross-laminated timber made up the floors and the roof, and glulam timber made up the beams and columns. We used a timber-concrete composite system that allowed us to use half the number of beams than if they were just concrete, giving the building that open feel. On the zipper truss, it supported the load—no columns needed in that area. We built the building first and added the truss later. The floor was a composite slab, and it’s one of a kind. It’s a CLT floor with concrete and metal plates set into the timber.
In fact, because the whole building is a first, it not only served as a replicable example of how to build with CLT, but became the actual code-determining building for CLT in the U.S. That means governing bodies used this building to write the regulatory code pertaining to CLT construction in the U.S.
We incorporated sustainable practices into both the construction of this building and the finished product. Building with wood is more sustainable than it might appear: unlike steel and concrete, wood doesn’t produce carbon during the manufacturing process. Trees actually sequester, or absorb, carbon as they grow. Building with wood generates 26% to 31% less greenhouse gas than building with concrete or steel respectively. And, once the CO2 sequestered in its fiber is counted, wood is actually carbon negative. If all that wood were to remain in the forest, it would release carbon back into the environment after it dies and decomposes. This is one of the reasons many environmentalists now believe it’s better to sustainably harvest forests before trees die.
For the black spruce, which is the timber used for the Olver building, the CLT process allows us to use every part of the tree in production, including tree tops and side cuts—a sizeable volume of mechanically strong timber that used to go unused. This approach has improved overall management of the entire forest.
Another major misconception about building with wood concerns fires. Unlike steel, timber doesn’t soften or buckle in fires. It chars. This means that a fire will burn on the surface only, at a predictable rate. Wood also insulates better than concrete and steel — CLT structures can use one-third the heating or cooling energy consumed by steel or concrete buildings.
The finished Olver Building benefits the environment by avoiding 1,218 metric tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s the equivalent of taking 512 cars off the road for a year, and it saves enough energy to operate a house for 228 years
When we started this project, there were many aspects of this building that hadn’t been done before. By working hard, sharing our partners’ vision, and leveraging our construction knowledge, we built a project that helped define the building codes for engineered timber buildings in the U.S.