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Why UMass Amherst’s newest building is made almost entirely of wood

The grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for the Design Building on the campus of UMass-Amherst. Dave Roback / The Republican/The Republican

When thinking of sleek modern buildings, one probably does not envision wood as a key material. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s new Design Building is aiming to change that.

Unveiled Tuesday, the 87,000-square-foot structure will house three of the university’s programs, technology labs, interior courtyards, and outdoor classroom space, as well as a rain garden. What really makes the building different, however, is that it is almost entirely made of a special type of wood called cross-laminated timber — an engineered wood known for its lightness and durability — to create the largest such structure in New England.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy called the $52 million building “a testament to out-of-the-box-thinking.” The decision to use wood came about when faculty pushed the administration to make a more environmentally friendly choice when constructing the new building, Subbaswamy said by phone Tuesday.


“We had a conventional design with concrete and steel, but faculty advocated for this,” he said. “We knew it would cost more and that building would take longer, but now that’s its done, we have a building that the Commonwealth can be proud of while greatly reducing our carbon footprint.”

That environmental reduction is nothing to sneeze at, according to Alex Schreyer, director of the university’s building and construction technology program.

“This is technology that has been around for a long time. It’s proven,’’ Schreyer said. “Other countries are already building with wood.’’

He estimated that building with wood saves the equivalent of over 2,300 metric tons of carbon when compared to a traditional energy-intensive steel and concrete building. “It’s economical, viable, and beautiful,” Schreyer said.

The building, designed by the Boston architectural firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates, is as structurally sound as any steel structure because cross-laminated timber was used, he said.

“You take layers of lumber, lay them at right angles, and glue them together to form a big piece,” Schreyer said. “It ends up being very lightweight and incredibly strong.”


He believes that in areas where forestry is a prominent industry and trees are abundant, more developers will opt to use wood.

“Where trees grow, why not use them? Wood may not replace everything — even ours has steel and concrete — but it’s about smart use of resources while cutting back on your carbon footprint,” Schreyer said.

The project is financed with university funds borrowed through the UMass Building Authority.

The college hopes the building will serve as a teaching tool for students.

Andrew Grant can be reached at andrew.grant@globe.com.