A previous mass timber design by Jesús Vassallo and his team at Rice University.

While Rice students cheered the announcement of a sorely needed new wing for the school’s Hanszen College, outsiders heralded the project as a Houston milestone: the city’s first structure constructed from something called mass timber.

The newfangled building practice usually starts with everyday lumber stacked Jenga-style and bonded together to create a composite that’s both super-strong and fire-resistant. Manufacturers use it to create built-to-specification walls, beams, columns, and whatever else goes into a particular building. “Once you send the blueprints to the factory, they manufacture it, and all you have to do is assemble,” explains Jesús Vassallo, the Rice architecture professor and mass timber expert overseeing the university’s project.

Some view the Ikea-for-buildings approach—which has spread to the Gulf Coast from tree-dense corners of Europe and the Pacific Northwest—as the future of architecture. The assembly process can shave off roughly 40 percent of construction time, and Vassallo says mass timber—whose design can render it as strong as steel or concrete—is appropriate for use in everything from mid-rise office buildings to skyscrapers. Recent changes to international building codes will permit the practice in structures up to 18 stories tall.

But proponents say mass timber’s greatest promise lies in its sustainability. According to one study, substituting wood for all other building materials might prevent as much as 31 percent of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, projects like the new Rice dorm, Vassallo explains, could be carbon negative if the continually replenished forests that supply the lumber absorb and trap more climate-warming carbon dioxide than what’s produced during construction. The team behind the Hanszen project received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service to research the new material’s ability “to maintain forest health and resiliency” through responsible harvesting.

So sure, it is just a dorm, but Vassallo also sees it as a glimpse of the future, and what other projects might look like after the Hanszen College project makes its 2021 debut. “We want to use the building,” he says, “as a case study for the future.”

Another mass timber rendering from Jesús Vassallo's team.

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