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Mass Timber Schools: Building for Student and Staff Well-Being

New report explores how mass timber schools could boost well-being, cut carbon, and remain flexible without breaking the bank.

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How can we build schools that are adaptable, while supporting student well-being and learning? What role can biophilic design and mass timber play? And how do we cut carbon, while delivering better schools faster, without breaking the bank?

Those are the questions Mithun, in collaboration with an expert team, set out to explore in their report.

As expertise and experience in mass timber continues to flourish across the country, an increasing number of designers are looking at how mass timber and biophilic design could help optimize learning environments. And according to the Mithun report, there is a growing body of research that associates biophilic spaces with student health and cognitive benefits. Combine that with advancements in mass timber technology, and you have a winning combo that can contribute to building better schools, faster.

To further investigate the feasibility of mass timber schools, the Mithun team took an iterative approach driven by an optimized three-ply mass timber structural grid and sectional framework that balances efficient timber fiber volumes with the need for agile spaces. The report’s results demonstrate that mass timber spaces can be cost competitive for schools when compared to a steel-framed baseline—providing warm, well-daylit interiors with exposed mass timber columns, beams, ceilings, and walls that can evoke biophilic responses while significantly reducing embodied carbon impacts.

Why Build Schools with Mass Timber?

The Human Factor: Biophilia 

According to the Mithun report and cited studies, there is growing evidence that biophilic design can be correlated with improved learning, memory, emotion, and social intelligence. 

Biophilic design is when designers bring elements of the outdoors inside by integrating natural elements into the building, such as wood, greenery, natural light, water features, and views to nature.

Children with access to nature exhibit lower levels of stress than those without; children in day-lit classrooms have test scores 7-18% higher, while children without daylight saw test scores drop by 17%.  

According to the report, trees elicit positive biophilic responses. School interiors that feature wood and bring nature indoors can provoke a similar positive psychological response.

Similarly, exposure to wood in indoor environments has been correlated to positive biophilic responses. Preliminary research shows wood surfaces reduce activation of the sympathetic nervous system, helping to calm the body before the onset of stress. Other studies suggest wood may help reduce blood pressure and heart rate, as well as allowing for more creativity and productivity.

Well-being with Wood

Mithun’s report features a number of study findings related to biophilic design, wood, and well being:

Creativity. Wood grain as a texture may positively influence creativity. The most recent evidence comes from a 2019 Slovakian study where people were tested in different simulated living room environments. The surroundings that had the most positive effect on creativity were the ones using both warm and cold colors as well as natural materials such as wood and textiles.

Physiological. Wooden classrooms may lower heart rates and give students a lower perception of stress. A growing number of studies show that blood pressure and heart-rate may go down for people living and working in wooden buildings. For example, a one-year Austrian study compared fifty-two high-school students in a school fitted with two kinds of classrooms. One of the classrooms had linoleum floors and plasterboard walls while the others were wooden classrooms. The wooden classrooms were associated with lower heart rates and blood pressure.

Stress Reduction/Recovery. Wood may contribute to stress reduction or recovery from stress. A study conducted in British Columbia, Canada provides evidence that wood surfaces in an office may lower the body’s sympathetic nervous system (decreasing blood pressure and heart rate), thereby reducing stress.

The Bush School New Upper School
Photo Credit: Lara Swimmer

Learn about more research on biophilic design in the full report.

Mass Timber’s Advantages to School Districts

Along with the advancements in construction of mass timber schools, the report cites a growing list of advantages for school districts and their design teams.

Help Cut Carbon Emissions

In the wake of more school districts setting goals and policies to reduce harmful emissions, mass timber construction can help, because it has a smaller carbon footprint and can store carbon over the life of the building. According to the report, life cycle assessments demonstrate that substituting wood for steel and concrete in construction can offer carbon-cutting benefits.

Embodied Carbon Impact. Results show that mass timber can offset all emissions incurred in material manufacturing and production, reducing GWP by up to 200% compared to a steel-framed benchmark.

The Bush School New Upper School. Mithun; Seattle, Washington 20,000 SF; The structure utilizes mass plywood floor and ceiling panels with glulam beams to reduce embodied carbon and optimize efficiency. It is anticipated to be the first Passive House school on the West Coast.

Childcare Center Hoffeld
Photo Credit: Christian Kremsl
Reduce Construction Schedule

The time it takes school districts to construct and assemble a school can be shortened using mass timber, taking advantage of faster, more efficient off-site prefabrication.

A study of 100 mass timber buildings in the UK showed 80% reduction in truck deliveries for the building structure and 50 to 70 percent reduction of site staff for structural framing.

Mass timber can increase the speed of construction and delivery by approximately
25%.
Childcare Center Hoffeld
Photo Credit: Christian Kremsl

Quieter, Safer Construction with Smaller Crew Sizes

Along with offsite mass timber prefabrication comes smaller crew sizes and greater on-site safety. Controlled temperatures, air quality, and noise can be provided in a factory environment. According to research from the University of Utah, “by moving to prefabrication, the construction industry and its workers can experience a much safer environment by a factor of 2.” Prefabricated mass timber construction not only leads to less time on site, but also significantly cuts down on local disruptions associated with construction such as increased traffic, lane closures, and noise. 

A Mass Timber Kit-of-Parts Offers Long-Term Flexibility

Mithun’s original mass timber kit-of-parts design approach to a new school allows for building up to three stories tall and provides long-term interior flexibility to adapt to evolving teaching strategies and pedagogies. It can also offer easier expansion, as the method allows for adaptation to existing school construction grids. And the mass timber kit-of-parts system can be installed as a prefabricated replacement for temporary portables to create a more equitable learning environment across classrooms.

Learn about more advantages for school districts in the full report.

Designing a Mass Timber School as a Kit-of-Parts

As population growth shifts and communities expand, school districts are increasingly pressed to remain nimble and flex with these changes. Mass timber is a prefabricated systemized product that achieves this and performs most efficiently when conceptualized as a kit-of-parts.

The report also presents Mithun’s kit-of-parts approach that allows school districts and design teams to optimize wood fiber volume and efficiency, responding to programmatic spatial requirements through either a short-span or long-span framework.

The mass timber kit-of-parts for core learning areas comprises a series of elements that are adaptable to a range of educational pedagogies.

Is a Mass Timber School Cost Competitive?

Mass timber is proving to be cost competitive, according to Mithun’s analysis. In some markets, mass timber may show higher first costs compared to a steel and concrete structure. Nonetheless, benefits such as a shorter construction schedule, reduced embodied carbon, increased productivity in students and staff, and improved overall well-being may outweigh any premium seen in up-front costs of building with mass timber.

 

Lessons Learned:
The Future of Mass Timber Schools

Now more than ever, schools need to meet a plethora of needs—inspire students, foster well-being, remain cost-effective and environmentally sound, cut carbon, and adapt to a school district’s changing needs. 

Mithun’s report highlights some compelling reasons why the mass timber movement in the US is growing, and how it can help meet these demands, especially for K-12 educational facilities. Their research demonstrates that by working fully within the design parameters of mass timber to minimize wood fiber, a 3-ply CLT solution can maximize value, minimize carbon, improve learning outcomes, and be built within costs that are on par––or potentially less––than building schools with more conventional structural systems.

The future for mass timber schools, and their teachers, staff, and students, looks bright.

Learn More About Mass Timber Schools:

 

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