MSU looks to develop mass timber building expertise

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There are only a few months left before the East Lansing campus’s new STEM Teaching and Learning Facility is complete.

The 157,000-square foot building—which includes two major additions to the former Shaw Lane Power Plant—is the first of its kind in Michigan, having been constructed primarily from mass timber.

Mass timber is the construction industry’s modern term for large-scale construction projects built from wooden components. Michigan State, which has a history in forestry, is working to establish itself as a leader in mass timber for the region.

“This is the first new classroom building being built on campus in about 50 years,” said George Berghorn, an assistant professor of construction management in the School of Planning, Design and Construction. “We thought it was really important that this building become a statement building for that reason.”

Benefits associated with mass timber construction include shorter construction time and smaller crew size.

Buildings constructed with more wooden components can also help to relieve some of the unnatural feelings that come along with being in a large institutional space, Berghorn said.

“Schools, hospitals and other institutional buildings can all be pretty big, pretty cavernous, empty buildings,” Berghorn said. “I can definitely say that there is this sense of a connection to the natural world when you see exposed wood in those kinds of settings.”

This benefit is based on the biophilia hypothesis, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a desire or tendency to commune with nature.” Humans feel more comfortable being close to natural materials — in this case, wood. The biophilic aspects of exposed wood were considered when discussion the potential student experience in the new science, technology, engineering and math building.

“We want students to feel welcome in the space, to feel like it’s a warm and inviting space. Not a big, cavernous, sterile space,” Berghorn said. “We think we got that.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is designing its own $5 million mass timber building in Newberry, in Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. Berghorn said he has been advising the DNR on the project.

Last spring, Berghorn was supposed to travel to the Pacific Northwest, where mass timber construction is more common. This trip was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“We were a little late to the game in the Midwest. Mass timber has been around in Europe for 20-plus years,” Berhgorn said. “MSU is really trying to establish the fact that we have a viable research and development program here on campus looking at the material and also looking at how it is used in design and construction. Hopes are that we will eventually be able to attract a mass timber manufacturer to the state.”

Michigan State and the DNR are not the only two institutions in the region with mass timber projects. There are at least 10 mass timber buildings and proposals in the region (see map above):

  1. T3 in Minneapolis
  2. The H-STEM Building in Houghton, Michigan
  3. Department of Natural Resources Facility in Newberry, Michigan
  4. Ascent Apartments, Milwaukee
  5. River Beech Tower in Chicago
  6. Michigan State University STEM Teaching and Learning Facility in East Lansing
  7. The Toronto Tree Tower in Toronto
  8. The Arbour in Toronto
  9. University of Toronto Academic Tower in Toronto
  10. 80 Atlantic in Toronto