College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Clemson University extends leadership in mass-timber research


New research at Clemson University is aimed at helping expand the use of mass timber, an environmentally sustainable option for the construction of new buildings.

A research team that brings together civil and environmental engineers, architects and foresters will work over the next three years to develop an all-timber structural floor system for buildings.

Clemson is one of the nation’s pioneers in mass-timber research, and the new project extends the University’s leadership in the field.

One of the big goals of the project is to help reduce the amount of atmospheric carbon that contributes to climate change. Mass timber comes from trees, and trees pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Any trees that become part of mass-timber buildings store carbon that otherwise might have fueled climate change.

Through deliberate design, mass timber buildings also have the potential for renovation, reuse and deconstruction, giving them a longer life and making them less likely to end up in landfills, researchers said.

The project is funded with $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The principal investigator is Brandon Ross, the Cotttingham Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at Clemson.

Researchers will focus on a type of mass timber called cross-laminated timber, which is made by gluing together pieces of sawed lumber to form large panels. One of the key goals will be to create a floor system using cross-laminated timber that can span 40 feet, or about double what is the current industry practice.

“What’s new here is we are coming up with a system that can span much farther than you typically do with some of these systems,” Ross said. “The way that we’re doing that is by making them composite, with all the parts and pieces working together to create a stiffer, stronger structure.”

Longer spans would help reduce costs and give architects more flexibility in their building designs, researchers said. For example, many mass-timber buildings would need fewer load-bearing walls and columns than they currently do, they said.

Patricia Layton, a project collaborator and director of Clemson’s Wood Utilization + Design Institute, said the project helps solidify Clemson as one of the top universities in the United States conducting mass timber research.

“When you are looking at designing, engineering and constructing buildings, we’re there with the knowledge of forestry and sustainability in one package,” she said. “We are cutting edge.”

Brandon Ross, left, works with Coleman Eubanks in the Built Environment Laboratory.

Dustin Albright, a project collaborator and assistant director of the School of Architecture, said Clemson’s influence in the field goes back nearly a decade, when former Master of Science student Graham Montgomery did his thesis on an early version of this unique mass timber floor system.

At the time, mass timber had been used in Europe for years but was just starting to catch on in the United States.

Since then, Clemson has built two mass-timber buildings on its main campus, the Andy Quattlebaum Outdoor Education Center and the Samuel J. Cadden Chapel. Many other mass-timber buildings have gone up across the country, ranging from offices and schools to an airport terminal and residential buildings, including a new 25-story residential development in Milwaukee.

“This latest project will be the way to take our research another step further and to look at not only span and structural performance but also fire safety and acoustical performance,” Albright said. “We’ll be looking at it from a holistic perspective, and what it would take to bring it into the market.”

The floor system that researchers have in mind would utilize outer layers of cross-laminated timber with glued-laminated timber beams in-between, forming a box-like structure. It would include interior space for electrical conduits, plumbing and mechanical ducts.

As part of the project, researchers plan to build and test a mass timber structural floor system at Clemson’s Built Environment Laboratory in Pendleton.

They want a system that meets building codes, stands up to extreme loading conditions and can be efficiently assembled and dismantled. The plan also calls for a floor system that can be mass produced and does not have annoying vibrations or sag.

Researchers will build a chamber for acoustic testing.The chamber will consist of two rooms, one on top of the other, and standard noise-making devices to test how much noise is transferred from one room to the other. Building codes prescribe acoustic performance, especially in residential buildings and hotels, Albright said.

The chamber will expand Clemson’s capabilities at the Built Environment Laboratory, and researchers expect to reuse the chamber to test other types of floor systems and to make it available to industry.

“Someone from industry may want to test a product or system they are developing, ” Albright said. “With the knowledge that we gain and the infrastructure that we set up, we will be able to do some of this kind of testing in the future.”

The new research is putting the Built Environment Laboratory in the spotlight.

It first started coming together in 2018 and is now equipped with an overhead crane and a strong floor. The lab is shared by Clemson’s civil engineers, the School of Architecture and the Wood Utilization + Design Institute. Many groups at Clemson helped make the lab possible, including the Office of the Vice President for Research, Ross said.

“Now we’re able to chase a million-dollar project that we wouldn’t have been able to previously,” he said.

Collaborators on the project include Research Assistant Professor Michael Stoner, Professor of Intelligent Infrastructure Weichiang Pang, Professor of Architecture Dan Harding and Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences Michael Carbajales-Dale. All but one of the main collaborators are faculty fellows in the Wood Utilization + Design Institute.

About 8-10 graduate and undergraduate students will be involved in the research, providing them with experience in a fast-growing field.

Jesus M. de la Garza, director of School of Civil & Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, said Ross is well qualified to lead the research.

“This project is a testament to Dr. Ross’ innovative ideas, hard work and ability to build a multidisciplinary team capable of expanding the boundaries of knowledge in sustainable building design,” de la Garza said. “He and his team are well positioned for success.”

Also among those offering their congratulations to the team was Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

“This research funding will enable a multidisciplinary team to develop new sustainable building designs and open new opportunities for collaborations with industry,” he said. “I congratulate Dr. Ross and his team on their innovative ideas and securing this well-deserved project .”

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