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Timber Structure for Hampshire College

by Rick Reynolds

Bensonwood, in the “supporting” role category, will be fabricating and raising the massive FSC 2certified Nordic Lam timber frame structure and 2nd floor decking for Hampshire College’s new R.W. Kern Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. With many dramatic open-span areas, the two-story 15,000 SF campus portal and complex will house an admissions office, welcome center, coffee bar, gallery, campus store, and shared learning spaces.

In addition to addressing the college’s wide variety of space needs, the new building is designed to “encourage community, collaboration, and conversation,” while at the same time, “become a place where the story of Hampshire College’s unique, progressive, and experimenting intellectual community can be explored,” according to the school’s project goals.

1Initially the brainchild of Hampshire College president (and former head of the World Resources Institute), Jonathan Lash, the sustainable structure was designed by the prestigious architectural firm, Bruner/Cott & Associates. Pushing the bounds of environmental design, the facility is intended to be net zero and meet the stringent Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification requirements.

Wright Builders, of North Hampton, Massachusetts, with an impressive resume of experience in sustainable building projects, is the GC on the project.

junkAs part of the Living Building Challenge certification, all the wood in the massive Nordic Lam structure is made from FSC certified wood, sustainably harvested from the taiga: the world’s largest terrestrial biome extending across the northern latitudes of North America and Eurasia—just below the tundra biome. In the taiga, dwarf coniferous trees, as small as just a few inches in diameter, form an almost continuous belt around the planet. Nordic glulams, made from these tight-grained trees, allow for enormous, high-strength, engineered timbers whose carbon is sequestered in the wood rather than being released as CO2 into the atmosphere during decomposition. The largest timber is 9″ wide X 38″ tall X 41′ long and weighs 3,700 pounds (about as much as a half-ton pickup truck). The longest timber measures 48′, and altogether there are about 30,000 board feet in the building’s timber frame with a total weight of just over 96,000 lbs.

2015-05-15 13.03.25According to Bensonwood timber frame leader Dennis Marcom, “35 years ago, when I began making a living building timber frames, I would never have guessed that you could build a timber frame on this scale—or any scale—from trees that are just barely big enough to build a tepee. Yet that’s exactly what we are doing today for this project. Black Spruce trees are harvested, dried, sawn into small sections, then assembled into straight strong timbers of pretty much any size that is desired.”

To keep the project in good standing, structural engineer, Nate Black, had this to say about the timber structure challenges: “The asymmetrical geometry and large spans made for many unique, heavily loaded connections. This required designing a unique steel fixture for most of the beam intersections which could handle the loads, meet the design aesthetic, and go together in a sequence that worked for the overall raising scheme. Creating a floor diaphragm without sheathing was also something new for us. To accomplish this, we bought the largest nail gun in our arsenal, which will fire 5 1/8” nails through the decking into the timbers below.”

DSC00027And further elaborating on the project, Bensonwood project manager, Kerry Uhler, said, “The 4” thick 2nd floor decking was cut and fabricated into large floor “panels,” some as large as 6′ wide and 24′ long. They’ll be flown into place quickly on site with a crane, greatly reducing installation time on site. The building was designed so that its structure, joinery, and mechanicals would be exposed, making it instructional as well as forming the aesthetic.”

The Hampshire College project comes on the heels of Bensonwood’s lead role in the fabrication and installation of two other high performance academic buildings: the Burr and Burton Academy Mountain Campus building in Peru, Vermont, and the White Mountain School’s Houghton Arts Center in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. And concurrent with the Hampshire College project, Bensonwood will also be fabricating and installing the shell for the 14,000 SF Common Ground School in New Haven, Connecticut.

Beautiful, healthy, high performance school architecture as an exemplar of sustainability is gaining momentum in the United States, and more and more, the learning institution itself is becoming an edifying environment. Bensonwood intends to play a meaningful role in this movement as our nation’s academic buildings become teachers in their own right.