With newfound confidence in the structural integrity of cross-laminated timber (CLT) for tall structures, awareness of the superior life-cycle sustainability of wood over steel and concrete, and promotion by the US Department of Agriculture for wood’s renewable and job-creating features, designers and builders are rediscovering wood.
But before they can take full advantage, wood still has to get past certain preconceived notions. Can it really perform in large-scale building? (The answer is yes.) Won’t it be vulnerable to fire? (No.) And aren’t some applications—banking, government, and academic buildings, in particular—expected to have the august aesthetic of masonry? (Not necessarily.)
LOCATION Syracuse, NY Program Conference space, café, offices, district power plant
Size 54,000 ft2
Certification LEED Platinum
Cost $26.5 million
Landscape Architect Andropogon Associations
Contractor Murnane Building Contractors
Construction Manager Turner Construction Company
Structural Engineer Clark Engineering & Surveying
MEP/FP Engineer Van Zelm Heywood & Shadford Geotechnical/Environmental/ Hazmat Engineer Dente Associates
Client SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry
Glulam Timber Clavert, RLD
Millwork Genbrook Millwork Metal Shingles Firestone Porcelain Tile Floor Gres Ecotech
Solar Panels Sunpower
Green Roof Carlisle Roof Garden
Vegetation Watson Farms, ESF greenhouses
The last of these questions is subjective, of course. But a striking example is the Gateway Center, the new centerpiece of the College of Environmental Science & Forestry (ESF), an institution of the State University of New York (SUNY) nestled alongside the Syracuse University campus. “The idea that masonry equates with longevity is a holdover from the 19th century,” says Daniel Bernstein, principal of Architerra, the Boston-based sustainable architecture and planning firm responsible for the Gateway Center’s design. “ESF is about innovation and 21st-century science.”
In other words, the extensive use of wood in the low-slung facility has much to do with image. But it’s also fundamentally about functionality. The extraordinary office, conference, exhibition, event, and café space is also a district power plant, providing energy to no less than five buildings on the ESF campus. The large-scale, intensive green roof—a collaboration between the architect, landscape architect Andropogon Associates, and ESF’s landscape architecture faculty—is an active research site. And on its hilly campus, the porticoed, all-glass façade with “tree-branch” bracing functions as both beacon and way station to students.
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate client for this project. ESF is a premier institution that prepares students for careers in forestry management and engineering, environmental sciences, and landscape architecture. Dan Arons, a principal and cofounder of Architerra, attributes the success of the Gateway Center—which has received multiple industry accolades, including the AIA COTE Top Ten Green Projects Award—to what he calls “the power of owner leadership.” “They set audacious goals and stood by them all through the process,” he says.
Those audacious goals included making do with a challenging site, which Ellen Watts, also a cofounder and comanager, describes as “three misfortunes.” First, the site was formerly a narrow parking lot. Second, the lot ran north and south against Syracuse’s Carrier Dome, a 1970s colossus. And the third challenge? “The west exposure is the worst for heat gain,” Watts says.
Architerra’s solutions included a bioclimatic form, the use of metal-clad serrations that block afternoon sun while turning views for building occupants southward. The school acquired an additional 30 feet of width from the university, broadening the footprint. As for the hulking concrete and fabric-roofed sports facility, which occupies seven acres, its dull grey mass serves as a nice backdrop to the bright, woody Gateway Center. “Low and lean, the building can’t overpower the stadium,” Watts says. “So instead it makes a very big gesture.”
Eight types of FSC-certified wood comprise the interior and exterior of the building, with rich wood grain prominent in walls, ceilings, load-supporting beams, pyramidal roof monitors, and the aforementioned bracings. But Watts is quick to point out that the goal was not simply to use wood as finishes. “It’s for function and fuel,” she says. “Glue-laminated timber is part of the structure, with the strength to support an intensive green roof.”
This “fuel” includes waste-wood pellets burned in a steam-boiler and turbine system. Combined with natural gas, solar photovoltaics, and solar thermal (drawn from half the roof space), energy costs are reduced by 64 percent and carbon emissions by 25 percent. This cogeneration plant occupies about half of the building’s lowest level, providing 60 percent of the heat and 20 percent of power required by the five buildings it serves. The plant is color-coded, monitored, and displayed for educational purposes.
The energy-reducing vegetated roof is also part and parcel of the education program for ESF students. “We have to credit the landscape architecture department for their vision,” Watts says. “They have experimented with other green roofs on the campus. At the Gateway Center, they conduct ongoing research on insects, birds, and opportunistic plants.” The students selected native species—Great Lakes dune and Alvar grasslands plants—that Watts reports were thriving in their second growing season in a non-irrigated, windswept, low-maintenance environment.
The rooftop vegetation, growing in 6 to 24 inches of dirt, captures most stormwater. But rain that falls on the solar panels and other parts of the site is channeled to a 48-inch trench, then into underground detention, and eventually into on-ground vegetation. No potable water is used for irrigation, while water-efficient measures in kitchens and restrooms reduce overall municipal water usage by 32 percent.
Back inside, rain-motif wall panels and a natural history exhibit (from the Roosevelt Wild Life Collections, permanently housed in another campus building) bring elements and representations of the outside in. Yet given the abundant indirect daylight throughout the concourse of the Center—and those tree-like structural features—such distinctions are intentionally blurred.
“Traditional academic buildings are often monoliths,” Watts says. “This building is very transparent. With layers and screens, it draws you in as it unfolds.”