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Bensonwood to Fabricate Writers-in-Residence Cabins

Sustainable CLT studios to usher in a new Pittsfield, MA, Renaissance

By Rick Reynolds

Writers' cabins

The Mastheads, as the project is dubbed, is named for the lookout point high on the masts of early sailing ships. Each studio is designed to represent a fragment of the five structures in the area from which the 19th century American authors wrote from 1840 to just before the Civil War; a period of great change for the early republic. The distinctive, modern-looking structures were designed by Berkshire-born architects, Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson.

With Pittsfield’s strong literary history of in-residence writers—19th century American Renaissance giants like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—the Massachusetts’ city is looking to rekindle its rich legacy and become a 21st century mecca for authors similarly inspired by the bucolic Berkshire region.

The wood studios are designed and engineered to be moved around the city, offering a different lens and vantage point as inspiration for each new year-long residence.

Bensonwood will construct the buildings using cross-laminated timber panels, or CLTs, a strong, durable, and versatile 21st century building material comprised of young growth, sustainably-harvested trees. The panels will be CNC (computer numeric control) milled off site to precise architectural specifications, and trucked flat to their inaugural sites for rapid assembly by The Mastheads’ project volunteers.

According to Bensonwood structural engineer, Chris Carbone, “The superb engineering properties of CLTs, and the robust material’s ability to be milled to exacting design specifications, off-site, using CNC machinery, make it the perfect material for the environmentally sensitive project.”

Elaborating on Bensonwood’s FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Chain of Custody, Carbone explained, “The CLT panels will be milled and sealed at Nordic Structures, an engineered wood products company headquartered in Montreal, Quebec. The FSC product they sell (and Bensonwood provides by virtue of its Chain of Custody FSC certification*) is comprised of young, small-diameter trees from the boreal forest.”

Carbone added, “It’s pretty cool to have a vertically integrated timber company like Nordic to work with. Cutting and shaping is happening at their mill, based on our CADwork digital files.”

The panels are shipped directly to Pittsfield from Nordic. Finishing will be done on site. Once on location, Bensonwood crews will be on hand to assist in the installation. Then, after that first year, each fully-assembled writer’s studio can be hauled as one modular unit to its new location.

Because the studios can be moved each summer, they will not only provide unique vantage points for the writers, but also serve as “hubs of creative expression” within the greater Pittsfield area, bringing energy to new parts of the city. This, in turn, will invite outside visitors to engage in the city’s rich cultural history, celebrating, as did the region’s maverick authors, the best of what is old, and what is new.

For its part, Bensonwood has its roots in the fine craftsmanship of 19th century New England architecture, marrying it with 21st building science to produce traditional timber frame structures with high-performance building envelopes.

Recently, Bensonwood has been involved in several CLT projects in New England, including the UMASS Integrated Design Building and the Hampshire College, Kern Center, both in Amherst, Massachusetts, as well as the Common Ground School, in New Haven, Connecticut. And, more in the scale of the The Mastheads’ structures, Bensonwood has built a number of replica timber frame Thoreau cabins in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, including one at the Walden Pond State Reservation in Concord, Massachusetts.

A community effort, the The Mastheads’ programming partners include the City of Pittsfield’s Office of Cultural Development, the Berkshire Athenaeum, the Berkshire Eagle, Pittsfield Public Schools, Berkshire Community College, and Berkshire-born architects, Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson.

*As an FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Chain of Command provider, Bensonwood can provide FSC Nordic products to other companies.  In addition to black spruce, the company can also provide FSC Douglas fir or southern pine glulam(glued laminated timber), salvage, or other wood products.