Rice architect, sustainability director on mass timber construction

Rice University recently announced plans for what could be the first so-called mass timber building in Houston.

Mass timber construction, an alternative to concrete and steel, uses engineered wood for the structural components of a building, reducing its carbon footprint, experts say.

The movement toward this type of construction is on the rise. As of June, projects had been built or were in design across the United States, according to WoodWorks, a Washington D.C.-based organization that provides education and support for wood construction projects.

Rice architecture professor Jesús Vassallo and Richard Johnson, the university s director of sustainability and energy management, recently discussed the five-story, ,-square-foot student housing project with the Chronicle.

Rice recently received a $, federal grant for the project. Some of that money will go to hiring someone to track the carbon impact of the project. What will that person do exactly?RJ: He will look at the material selection and where the materials are coming from, how they re being transported and help us to make decisions. Say we can get the same materials at two different locations. One would come , miles by truck and another by rail. Rail would have less of a carbon impact. Imagine that extrapolated over a series of decisions. He ll be helping us understand how to more broadly reduce the carbon impact of construction.

Why does Rice want to do this project?RJ: The planet is rapidly urbanizing and rapidly warming. The projections are by the year , percent of the world will live in cities. A little over percent do now, so our future is going to be very urban. If done correctly, this offers a model to build in an era of climate change where the building itself is carbon storage.

Where will you get the wood?JV: Like any other construction project, first we will need to retain the services of an architect and a general contractor. Then we will go out and look for quotes. We ll be talking to different manufacturers.

Where are the manufacturers?JV: Manufacturers are starting to come online in this part of the country. There are quite a few mass timber facilities in Canada, the Pacific Northwest, there s one in Arkansas and another in East Texas in Lufkin.

Rice s buildings have a distinct architectural style. How will the new mass timber building fit in?JV: The fact that we re building it with mass timber doesn t mean it needs to look any different from the outside. That depends on the architect. A number of buildings on the campus in recent years have started to depart a little bit from the historicism – the Moody Center for the Arts or the Brochstein Pavilion. We ve seen a new generation of buildings that are respectful in their own way without having to mimic.

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