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UA Turns to Wood In Building Projects

5 min read

Roger Boskus has a busy moonlighting gig.

He’s a partner at Miller Boskus Lack Architects in Fayetteville, the architecture firm of record for the 27,000-SF library storage facility that the University of Arkansas is building off Government Avenue. The facility is the first in Arkansas that will be built with cross-laminated timber panels.

CLT is a new construction material in the United States, but it has been widely used in Europe and elsewhere. The first panel at the library storage unit was installed Feb. 7. Since then, Boskus has been a tour guide for the facility, which is scheduled to be completed this summer.

“It is the future of construction,” Boskus said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Boskus said he gives about three to four tours every week, mostly for members of various companies, including developers and fellow architects. The library storage facility will soon have company, because the university will be using CLT as the main component of its 200,000-SF Stadium Drive Residence Halls, where construction began last fall.

Boskus said he wasn’t familiar with CLT technology before beginning work on the library storage unit. He has relied on the advice and expertise of consultant Pete Kobelt, a Swiss-American who lives in Florida and has more than 10 years of experience with CLT. Gov. Asa Hutchinson held a summit on CLT technology in Little Rock in 2016, in hopes that the building process will be a boon to the state’s timber industry.

“There’s a ton of interest,” Boskus said. “It’s not something brand-spanking new. We like to try new things. Life is more fun that way.”

An Addition to the Toolkit
Boskus had to familiarize himself with the process, but Peter MacKeith is versed in the use of CLT. As dean of the university’s Fay Jones School of Architecture & Design since 2014, MacKeith has been promoted teaching CLT techniques in the school.

The technology, simplified, uses panels of planks that are glued together in depths of three, five, seven or nine. The panels alternate direction, like a flattened Jenga game, and the result is a strong but light building material.

The panels are manufactured according to a specific design and shipped to building sites, and the ready-to-assemble panels result in shorter construction times.

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The university is using CLT manufactured in Austria for its projects: As of now, there is just one CLT manufacturing facility in the United States, in Oregon.

“We can say this is simply a re-emergence of the use of timber in these engineered ways, especially after the Second World War,” MacKeith said. “It’s not only where there are deep forest reserves but where there is a desire for time-efficient and increasingly cost-efficient building based upon a renewable resource, which of course wood is. It’s a sustainable one at that.”

The use of CLT and related techniques hasn’t caught on in the States, MacKeith said, in part because many architects, engineers and contractors are more experienced in traditional materials such as concrete and steel.

That’s why he believes it is important to teach the next generation of builders about the concept.

“This is something I have advocated, first within the school as a very valuable addition to the overall toolkit of architects, engineers and contractors,” MacKeith said. “I think it is important for all of us in the architect-engineer-contracting community to simply have a more diverse toolkit of materials and technologies to draw upon. I’m particularly excited about this because I recommended it as an option for the university construction.”

Mike Johnson, the university’s vice chancellor of facilities, said using CLT in the two residence halls, which will house more than 700 students when completed, was not a hard sell. The material passed fire tests, as well as other safety protocols, including being able to withstand an EF2 tornado.

Johnson said CLT and related laminates added about 2 percent to the Stadium Drive Residence Halls’ $79 million price tag, but the other advantages made it worthwhile. Boskus and Johnson said the use of laminates in the library storage construction saved about $1 million in an $11 million budget.

“It is becoming bigger and bigger in the U.S. and, tied into us doing this, there’s a lot of interest in the statewide timber industry,” Johnson said, referring to the construction of the residence halls.

“We have been talking about it over the last several years. The timber industry is obviously interested in this. We made the decision after schematic design that we were going to proceed with the timber design.”

Yellow Pine Boon
Southern Arkansas stands to gain if CLT becomes more popular, because the area is awash in yellow pine timber, a prime ingredient in CLT, said Matthew Pelkki.

Pelkki, chairman of the School of Forestry & Natural Resources at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, said the state grows 8 million more tons of pine than it harvests annually. And while wood is a popular material in residential construction, CLT could greatly expand its use in commercial and multifamily buildings.

“We have more timber than we have had in this state since probably the late 19th century,” Pelkki said.

Pelkki said many observers of the timber industry, himself included, are watching the CLT projects in Fayetteville. He said the first step is getting more acceptance for CLT’s use and then, critically, building a CLT manufacturing facility in Arkansas.

That would allow acres of Arkansas wood to be harvested, processed and turned into laminates in the state, all benefiting economic growth. Pelkki said a manufacturing facility would be relatively inexpensive — $30 million with a workforce of approximately 25 — and would allow the state to reap the value added to harvested pine.

“One of the issues is we learned how to grow loblolly pine more quickly but, as we grow it more quickly, the strength and quality of lumber isn’t as good as it was 70 years ago,” Pelkki said. “When you engineer it and put it in cross-laminated timber, you can engineer out defects. It’s much stronger.”

Pelkki said he hopes Arkansas sees state manufacturing facility in the next years. One is under construction in Alabama, and Pelkki said an Arkansas facility would be well positioned to take advantage of CLT’s use in more construction markets.

Bringing a facility to Arkansas would also lower costs, eliminating shipping expenses for panels from Austria, for state or regional construction projects.

“We are really just scratching at the surface, and expanding in these markets is not going to be an issue,” Pelkki said. “The biggest issue is that architects and engineers and even building contractors don’t have a lot of experience with this material. They’re used to doing stick-built wood homes or concrete and steels for multistory [buildings]. It’s just different. When architects and engineers and builders are familiar with it, they will start using it a lot more.”

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