Photo: David Sundberg

Wood: Advancing environmental learning and leadership

The 180 students of Common Ground High School do more than study urban farming and sustainability. They live it each day in a building that’s now a national model of what is possible in green school construction.

Project Details

“Find me a high school student anywhere in the country that knows where their school’s sheet rock was processed.”

It’s a provocative challenge and at the heart of a new $7.5 million, 14,000 square foot addition to an environmental charter high school in New Haven, Conn.

The school is called Common Ground High School, and it offers public school students an innovative curriculum of urban agriculture combined with sustainable land-management practices. Last April it honored that earth-first ethic by opening the doors to the nation’s first building to use cross-laminated timber (CLT) as a “stressed skin” assembly. The facility is targeted for LEED Gold certification.

School as Metaphor

The person responsible for the design (and sheet rock challenge) is Alan Organschi, designer and principal at New Haven, Conn.-based Gray Organschi Architecture. Gray Organschi’s project portfolio represents an eclectic mix of commercial, educational, and residential projects across the northeastern U.S.

“Common Ground High School asked us for design recommendations,” Organschi reports. “I suggested using mass timber as the construction material. I said we would source the wood. We know exactly what forest this wood is coming from. The school will be a great pedagogical lesson for the students. School leadership liked it. They were committed from the beginning.”

Black Spruce

Working in close collaboration with design partner and co-principal of the firm Elizabeth Gray, along with respected local timber and structural engineers, Organschi and his team devised a construction strategy that deployed cellulose-based building materials throughout the addition. Black spruce CLT panels act as the tension surface and final ceiling finish. Vertical CLT panels form bearing and shear walls, while glue-laminated rafters and heavy timber trusses span the large ground-floor multi-purpose space.

Black spruce was selected because it’s “super dense and has an incredibly high bending stress capacity,” Organschi says. “The grain is tight and very beautiful. It’s a very exciting material to work with.”

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