Developed in Associate Professor Jesús Vassallo’s wood seminar at Rice Architecture, the Johnson Owl Deck exemplifies the design possibilities of cross-laminated timber.
While Rice University, where Vassallo is an associate professor, is located entirely within the city limits of Houston, it is, somewhat unexpectedly, one of the most biodiverse university campuses in the country. Vassallo and his students chose a site in the Harris Gully Natural Area on the south side of campus for the new wildlife observation pavilion, just a short distance from Barkow Leibinger’s new Hanszen Residential College, a mass timber-framed dormitory that benefited from the same USDA Forest Service funding. Vassallo collaborated with Rice’s School of Natural Sciences, where a group of professors were lobbying to keep the Harris Gully free from development. “The pavilion became a way to help the university become a little bit more committed to not developing that part of campus and treating it like a natural area,” he says.
With its origins in the classroom, it’s not surprising that the pavilion’s design is intended to teach some lessons. “It is a response to the dominant current thinking about mass timber, which is very focused on efficiency,” Vassallo says. “A lot of the energy is being put into how we effectively use mass timber to replace steel and concrete, which is a worthwhile objective, but that puts a lot of pressure on the features of efficiency and economy to the detriment of thinking a little bit more about the expression of the material.”
Vassallo notes that mass timber’s versatility is rooted in its ability to be used in many traditional architectural forms and functions. The design of the pavilion examines this idea, demonstrating how the same five-ply CLT panel—in this case, made from Alabama Southern Yellow Pine—can be used as the roof plane, a capital, and a column. “We developed a split joint to show that we could build this building by just putting pieces one on top of the other and then using fasteners to keep it from being undone by the wind,” he says.
The pavilion’s layout is quite simple: The columns are 12 feet tall with a 2-foot notch at top into which slots a 4-foot-tall capital. The column grid is 11.5 feet on center, and the roof cantilevers 6 feet beyond the perimeter of the columns on each side. The angle of each column demonstrates that CLT has the capacity to stand in different directions, indicating that the material can bear more complex structures.
Having practiced in Europe and the United States, Vassallo has seen the recent expansion of mass timber design across the two continents. While Europe has led the way, the professor sees nothing but upside for the U.S. and mass timber. “The U.S. will be a leader in this type of construction, because it has everything that is needed to become a leader,” he says, noting advantages such as the country’s highly industrialized modes of production, the strength of its forestry industry, the size of the internal market, and the tradition of building with wood. “I think it’s just a matter of time,” he says. And his students who contributed to the mass timber pavilion’s conception seem ready to meet that future.