School Timber Initiatives

Programs and Initiatives in Forests, Timber Industries and Wood Products
The Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, University of Arkansas

Peter MacKeith, Dean and Professor

“What does it mean to be a School of Architecture and Design in a state 60% covered in forest?”

Beginning in 2014, the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design has asked and responded to this and other similarly phrased questions with increasing commitment and productivity. The School’s overarching commitment to collaborative, inter-disciplinary design education addressing issues of imperative value for the state, region and nation has led to focus points on Arkansas’ cultural heritage (preservation design), societal wellbeing (design for health and aging), community stability and growth (resiliency design), and, in the case of its focus on the Arkansas forests, environmental and economic development (timber and wood design and innovation). In all cases, the School applies design thinking and design method to produce demonstrable, significant contributions to the state.

Engaging the faculties, resources, and facilities of the School’s three departments – architecture, landscape architecture and interior design – as well as its two state-focused outreach centers – the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and the Garvan Woodland Gardens – the School’s focus on catalyzing the potentials and opportunities of Arkansas’ forests now has attained multiple forms of activity, production and impact:

1. Education (Teaching and Learning)
Design studios and seminars in the School’s three departments now regularly identify engineered timber and wood products as the material and tectonic focus for the assigned project; projects are multi-story cultural, institutional and commercial programs, or intensive explorations of wood products through direct, hands-on small-scale constructions (pavilions and furniture). A current studio introduced students to the Arkansas forests and the potentials of timber and wood through a three-day seminar in the state forest. Studio and seminar programs and images of student work are available on request.

Under its new graduate degree structure, the Master of Design, the School will bring forward for approval this year a concentration in “Integrated Wood Design,” the first of its kind in the nation.

2. Education (Research and Discovery / USDA Forest Services Funds)
The School, together with the Arkansas Forest and Natural Resources Center, applied for and received a $250,000 USDA Forest Services “Wood Innovations” Grant for the period 2016-2019, with a research project entitled, “From Forest to Campus: The Innovative Timber University.” The research project will explore and demonstrate the viability of cross-laminated timber as a material, sourced from the Arkansas forest, applied to the design of a university multi-story residence hall, and eventually used in the full-scale construction of a prototypical student room in the residence hall. The grant proposal summary, as well as images of studio research and work are available on request. We are now working with the USDA Forest Services on a $100,000 grant-funded project, installing and monitoring moisture sensors in the UA’s new mass-timber-built residence halls, to obtain data useful for the state and national professions.

3. Education (Collaboration and Innovation)
To further the forest, timber and wood initiatives, the School has initiated productive partnerships with the College of Engineering, the Walton College of Business, the Bumpers College of Agriculture, and the Office of Sustainability on the Fayetteville campus, with the School of Forestry and Natural Resources/Arkansas Forestry and Natural Resources Center on the Monticello campus, with state and federal representatives (Congressman Westerman and Senator Boozman, in particular), with the Office of the Governor (multiple visits and discussions), with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, with the Arkansas Forestry Association, with family-owned and corporate-owned timber companies, with the USDA Forest Services, and with colleague schools and programs at Clemson, Mississippi State and Oregon. These relationships have all been of value to the educational component.

4. Education (Community Engagement)
With the sponsorship of Deltic Timber (now part of Weyerhauser), the School organized an August, 2016 symposium, “New Languages of Wood,” which brought national and international leaders in timber and wood education, research and design to Northwest Arkansas for two days of lectures, presentations and discussions. The event was open to the public and was attended by students, faculty, alumni and professionals in the architecture, engineering and contractor communities. There has been demonstrable effect of the symposium on architecture, engineering and contracting approaches to projects, building awareness of the technical specifications of the engineered timber and wood products. The symposium schedule and announcement are available on request. In December, 2017, the School organized a well-attended second conference, “Mass Timber: Design, Construction, Production,” which provided continuing education in mass timber design, construction and production to the Arkansas and regional architecture, engineering and construction professional communities.

There is also now contemplation of an “Arkansas Forest Academy,” an envisioned seminar in forest education that would gather citizens from across the state, as well as school-age children in K-12 programs state-wide, to a week-long introduction to the character and virtues of the Arkansas forest. An Arkansas forest education center is being envisioned for the grounds of the School’s Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs.

5. Economy (Production Opportunities)
Currently, despite the growing market for mass timber construction and engineered wood products (CLT, MPP, etc) in North America, there are only 5 CLT production facilities in either Canada (2, one in Ottawa and one near Vancouver) or the United States (2 in the Pacific Northwest, 1 in Alabama); none of them are centrally located on the continent, and none are near the Mississippi River and/or in the large SYP forests of the American Midwest/southeast. Given the surplus softwood available in Arkansas, the existing relationships of timber producers and sawmills, and the state’s transportation networks (road, rails and rivers), the School made a proposal in March, 2016, to Governor Hutchinson to organize and host a state/national conference on the feasibility of investing and developing an Arkansas CLT production plant in the next three years. The governor and his staff agreed and provided seed funding for the conference; the UA System offered its conference facilities. The conference, “Innovate Arkansas: Timber Design, Construction and Production,” was held on August 16, 2016, and was attended by over 75 participants – stakeholders including state and federal agencies, timber producers, university researchers, and professionals in architecture, engineering and contracting. The conference was both educational and stimulating, and has led to the formation of at least two exploratory investment groups, each focused on the ROI potential of an estimated $20-25,000,000 for a medium-size production facility, ideally to be located in the vicinity of Arkadelphia, Arkansas. The conference announcement is available on request. These economic development efforts, while formally beyond the mandate and reach of the School, have continued to evolve, and now engage strong economic interests in the state, including those of Fortune 500 corporations, Arkansas private timberland owners, and the state’s AEDC.

6. Environment (Surplus Biomass)
In partnership with the Arkansas Forest and Natural Resources Center, the School is seeking to address the potential environmental crisis resulting from the estimated 15 million tons of surplus softwood biomass the state currently possesses. The collective educational (teaching, research, collaboration, community engagement) efforts, together with the ambitions for CLT/Glu-Lam design and construction and CLT production facility development, are all aimed at reducing this surplus biomass and forestalling deleterious effects on the environment resulting from the unused surplus left on the ground.

7. Example (New Construction (University))
In part due to the School’s advocacy of mass timber design and construction, the University of Arkansas’s Fayetteville campus is now leading the state (and the region) in emphasizing the use of mass timber for new campus projects. First, the new Library Storage Building, while initially conceived in conventional concrete and masonry construction, was re-examined for its potential as a CLT panel construction; the CLT led to significant cost savings and construction time – approximately $1.1 million USD. Second, the RFP for the new campus residence halls (total 700 beds) emphasized expertise in “advanced timber technologies” for the architecture/engineering/construction services, and emphasized the consideration of mass timber in design and construction. The $75,000,000 project, broke ground in fall, 2017 and will be open for occupation in fall, 2019, will demonstrate the first viable use of mass timber for such multi-story residence halls in the United States. The Library Annex Building is now open and operating; the Residence Halls are currently the largest mass timber project in the United States and are attracting federal funds for design engineering research.