Wood Increasingly Used In School Construction

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Jul. 23, 2012 12:00 am  

Builders of El Dorado High School used wood throughout the building. According to Woodworks.org, wood lowers a building's cabon footprint through "avoided" greenhouse gas emissions.

A change four years ago in state guidelines has led to an increasing use of wood in school construction. It's a change that proponents of wood construction say recognizes improvements in the strength and durability of wood products, their cost effectiveness and their environmental benefits.

One of the highest profile examples of wood construction in an education facility is the $43.2 million 322,500-SF El Dorado High School, which opened just a year ago.

The way to the new El Dorado High and, now, other schools was paved in 2008 when the state revised the manual that governs construction of education facilities. The new rules permit the use of not just standard dimension lumber (2 by 4s, for example), but laminated beams, I-joists and structural panels.

Aubra Anthony, president and CEO of Anthony Forest Products of El Dorado, was among those leading the fight to persuade state officials, architects and others of the advantages of wood in nonresidential construction.

Even during the housing boom, Anthony said, "we were losing market share. And that was a shock." Structural component competitors included steel and concrete.

Although the construction bust hit wood product manufacturers particularly hard, it also made potential clients particularly cost-conscious. In addition, wood generally is considered more environmentally friendly than the alternatives. For one thing, it's a renewable resource. Want some wood? Plant a tree.

And if the wood is sourced locally, as was much of the wood in the El Dorado High School, its value as a sustainable product rises even higher because energy expended in transportation is less.

Blakely C. Dunn, principal of CADM Architecture Inc. of El Dorado, the project's architect, said the sustainability factor of wood played a role in the decision to use it extensively throughout the school. "Any architect worth his salt is going to want to use the most sustainable building products that they can if it's feasible to do so," he said.

"Our firm has historically used a lot of wood construction materials - laminated beams, trusses, plywood, wood trim - but we've never really used it very extensively on school projects, especially ones anywhere near this size," Dunn said.

Dunn acknowledged, however, that saving money was foremost among considerations. "Cost is definitely the driver," he said. "This is taxpayer funded, and we wanted to be prudent with those funds." The firm saw an opportunity "to use a sustainable building product but at the same time achieve a substantial cost savings to the owner, so it was sort of a win-win."

By using wood framing, the design team for the high school estimated a $2.7 million savings in the project's cost.

Engineering Consultants Inc. of Little Rock served as structural engineers on the project, and Baldwin & Shell Construction Co. provided construction management.

Those in the design and construction fields say wood structural and framing components are being employed more often, not just in educational facilities in the state but also in other nonresidential construction such as office buildings.

J. Richard Brown, a principal with Engineering Consultants Inc., said his firm was at work on several construction projects that feature wood as major structural components, including honors housing at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and a building for the Midland School District.

"They're able to build these at a considerable percentage less than they would have been if they'd had to build them out of steel," Brown said.

"One of the things that we like to do - and we practice all over the country - is that we like to use products that are indigenous to the area," Dunn said. "That helps the local economy, but it's also more sustainable because transportation costs are less."

Dunn's firm, in partnership with Witsell Evans & Rasco of Little Rock, is in the midst of designing a three-story student apartment complex for Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, about a $4.5 million project.

Jerry Brackett, a principal with Brackett Krennerich Architects in Jonesboro, points to a recently completed building that his firm designed, the Ritter Communications headquarters.

The building features "all kinds of green techniques," Brackett said, and wood is a major component. "We're expecting Gold [LEED] certification on that," he said.

He said he was seeing greater use of wood in construction in Arkansas, though engineered wood products have always played a major role in the building industry.

"Most clients want us to be energy efficient," he said, though not everyone is determined to be LEED certified.

In designing the Ritter Communications building, his firm was charged with building "a basic certified green building without spending any more than anybody else would spend," Brackett said. "We built a very green building ... for probably 10 or 15 percent less than what most people spend on buildings."

Brackett said misconceptions exist about the use of wood in construction, particularly in school buildings. "There's a perception that green costs more," he said. But "it doesn't have to."

The second misconception is that wood "isn't as safe and sound as steel. That's just not true. If you do them both right, they're compatible."

Unsurprisingly, Anthony is a big proponent of the use of wood in construction. "Arkansas is blessed with forests," he said. "And what you want to do is grow the forests by making them more economically valuable.

"If Arkansas has a strategic advantage with forests, how do you exploit it?" he asked. The answer: You harvest trees to produce, among other things, construction materials.

And "if you're exploiting it, you're employing more people; you're making more product to send to other states that don't have the forest resources to use and [you're] importing money. It makes timberland worth investing in and replanting worth investing in for the long term. And it makes for a greener Arkansas in the long term. I've kind of got this Johnny Appleseed complex. I like to see trees planted."

(To read more about the environmental benefits of wood use in the new El Dorado High School, click here.)



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