UBC Earth Sciences Building | Architect: Perkins + Will | Photo Credit: Martin Tessler

Defying Gravity: University Of British Columbia’s Free-Floating Timber Staircase First Of Its Kind

The University of British Columbia’s Earth Sciences Building is one of North America’s largest panelized wood structure and home to its Department of Earth, Ocean & Atmosphere, the Department of Statistics, the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences and the Pacific Museum of the Earth. It features a free-floating cantilevered solid timber staircase, one of the first of its kind in the world.

Project Details

About this Project

UBC’s Earth Sciences Building contains faculty and staff offices for each department, research laboratories, lecture theatres, a café as well as a museum. Designed to reflect the university’s commitment to sustainability, the Earth Sciences Building reduces its environmental impact with the application of a variety of innovative design features.

Wood Use

Using wood as the primary structure in the office wing, this five-story building is one of North America’s largest panelized wood structures. A key design feature used to promote physical activity and social interaction is a free-floating solid timber staircase descending into an open-concept atrium. The cantilevered timber stairway appears to defy gravity while demonstrating the design and structural capabilities of modern engineered timber.

A solid wood cross-laminated timber (CLT) canopy wraps three sides of the project to provide rain cover for pedestrians. It extends from inside the building, where it forms the interior ceiling finish of the museum and café. This feature unifies the interior and exteriors spaces, giving occupants a connection to nature and the outdoors.

Throughout the building, special connections were put in place to attach steel beams and wood beams to engineered wood columns. Diagonal glulam heavy timber braces at the end walls of each story are used to resist seismic loads
The project sets a new standard of structural performance and innovation in mass timber construction and demonstrates how modern engineered wood can be efficient and cost-effective in institutional projects of this size and scale.

Environmental Impact

The facility includes a number of sustainable features. Its high-efficiency envelope combined with solar shading on the east, west and south facades offers significant energy savings, while abundant natural sunlight reduces daytime demands for artificial lighting. The east facade has vertical translucent laminated glass fins, angled for maximum glare control, and the south and west facades have external horizontal shades and interior blinds to regulate light levels and heat gain. Ordered along the perimeter of the building, offices have operable windows and views to the exterior. Interior-facing offices look onto a natural light-filled atrium. Lectures halls and below grade laboratories make use of natural light. As an added environmental benefit, the 550,908 board feet of wood in the structure stores carbon equivalent of taking 415 cars off the road for a year.