In Design Building at UMass Amherst, Students Learn by Example

When the University of Massachusetts Amherst set out to build a new home for its design school, the goal was not just to raise an emblem to its burgeoning building arts program. “From the beginning, we knew that the Design Building would be a teaching tool,” says Andrea Leers of the Boston architectural firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates (LWA). As one of the largest timber frame structures on the East Coast, it was fashioned, says Jane Weinzapfel, LWA’s cofounding principal, to be “an experiment celebrating a shared commitment to sustainability.”

Begun in the summer of 2015 and opened to students in January 2017, the LEED Gold, copper-colored Design Building embodies the dynamic spirit of New England’s first publicly supported architecture program. From a fledging offering in the art department in the early 1970s, design education at UMass, Amherst has grown into a powerhouse. In a region noted for some of the nation’s oldest and most renowned architecture schools (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and Yale University), the $52 million Design Building announces the arrival of the new kid on the block.

It is always revealing when architects build for themselves. But what is exemplary about this project is that it is the cooperative venture of three departments — landscape architecture, architecture, and building technology — from three colleges: Social and Behavioral Sciences, Humanities and Fine Arts, and Natural Sciences, respectively. These wide-ranging disciplines combine in what LWA principal Josiah Stevenson calls “a highly visible demonstration of sustainable design practice.”

The university’s Department of Building and Construction Technology, led by Alexander Schreyer, a guru of heavy-timber structural systems such as laminated glued wood, was involved in developing the framing for the 87,000-square-foot building. LWA had designed a conventional steel frame, but the Commonwealth came up with an additional $2 million so the studios could be constructed of wood. Using such materials as glued and cross-laminated timbers, or glulam (what Stevenson calls “plywood on steroids”) on such a scale allowed for a near revolutionary accomplishment.

“All the structural members arrived on the site pre-cut and were snapped together with pins,” says Schreyer. “The columns were already finished, with no need for fire protection and drywall.” The Germany-born engineer says, “We not only show off our research, but we live in it,” and best of all, the building “smells like a sauna.”

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