The Mass Timber Collaborative: Building Capacity for Interdisciplinary Research and Practice

It is hard to imagine summers in the South without air conditioning. But that is the challenge that a team of architecture faculty and students took on to determine how changes to the structural design and materials used in a building envelope can allow passive systems (buoyancy ventilation, breathing walls) paired with sustainable materials, like Southern yellow pine and mass timber panels, to naturally cool a building. It is a little unusual for architecture students to conduct physics experiments as part of a design-build project, but the integration of design with science, engineering, and ecology, can lead to more beautiful and resilient homes. This interdisciplinary approach is central to the mass timber initiative in the College of Architecture, Design and Construction.

Professor of Practice Kiel Moe said, “Students are engaged in the research, reflecting on it, publishing results in scientific journals at the same time as they are applying it on the ground through design and construction. No other architecture programs are doing this. Through this model, we are developing a new type of graduate who knows more about Alabama timber and how to use it.”

Mass timber products combine wood products in ways that lend additional strength to match that of other popular building materials like steel or concrete. Through research and development of innovative materials—including cross-laminated timber, glulam and nail-laminated timber – wood is being applied in new ways and for larger scale buildings. Alabama is a timber-rich state and growth in application of timber in construction is an economic opportunity for the state. However, some designers and builders have been reluctant to adopt mass timber products due to uncertainty about how to use them in practice.

“We see this as a wonderful opportunity where faculty across campus can work together with partners across the state – foresters, mill owners, construction companies and design and construction professionals – to continue to advance the research while also preparing current and future professionals to use these products,” said Professor of Practice Tom Chung.

A recently formed Auburn Timber Collaborative has members from architecture, landscape architecture, building science, engineering, forestry and Extension. The faculty collaborative has been discussing ways to connect ongoing research on forests and timber products with emerging technologies in building design and construction; and to collaborate on new initiatives that will cut across disciplines. The Collaborative is being accelerated through university, state and federal support. Construction is underway for a new Mass Timber Research Workshop at the Research Park, which will open in fall 2023. The space will enable faculty and students to conduct research on mass timber, create their own mass timber panels, and manipulate panels for testing and constructing prototypes. The collaborative is also working to update course offerings and activities to incorporate interdisciplinary opportunities in existing courses and work together to develop new mass timber courses in the future.

The team, including faculty from architecture, building science, forestry, and engineering, was also recently awarded a grant from the U.S. Forest Service to build on the Auburn Timber Collaborative through outreach and training. The grant will support developing a network of industry partners and professionals across the state and developing education and training opportunities. The collaborative is intended to help with the transition of findings from research to practice and will include a mock-up mass timber building assembly developed by WoodWorks that will allow students and professionals to get hands-on experience in constructing with mass timber.

“Auburn University is in a unique position to do this work. We’re located in the heart of the southern wood basket; we have all the key fields of expertise: architecture, engineering, construction, and forestry; and we have strong relationships within each of these sectors of industry,” said CADC Associate Dean David Hinson. “With industry and university support, we’re developing the capacity to have a very big and very positive impact on our state and the region.”