Construction crews install cross-laminated timber panels while building new classrooms at Greywolf Elementary School in Sequim, one of the schools selected for a pilot project that builds new class space with CLT. (Forterra photo)

New timber product helps schools manage crowding, class size

Cross-laminated timber also has potential to help rural logging communities

There’s a buzz growing about cross-laminated timber.

The new building product — made by fusing crisscrossed layers of wood from small, diseased or dead timber typically left unharvested — has been praised as economical, environmentally friendly, remarkably strong, more flexible in an earthquake than steel, made-to-order and even a way to prevent the spread of forest fires and to boost some rural economies.

Now these prefabricated wood panels are being used to build new classrooms at Washington schools as part of a pilot project funded in the state’s 2016 capital budget and overseen by the state Department of Enterprise Services. Three elementary schools in Western Washington and two in Eastern Washington are participating in the pilot, each having four classrooms built.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday visited one of those sites, Jefferson Elementary School in the Mount Vernon School District, to mark the project’s progress and see the buildings himself.

Gov. Jay Inslee and students at Jefferson Elementary School cut the ceremonial ribbon Monday to celebrate four new classrooms built at the school with cross-laminated timber. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

The new classrooms are part of a larger effort throughout the state to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and to help meet the demands of growing enrollment and all-day kindergarten, said Carl Bruner, Mount Vernon’s superintendent, during the governor’s visit. Using CLT to meet that demand could be an efficient and economical solution, project leaders added.

“While we and other districts have been working to pass capital bonds to fund permanent construction, we’ve relied on relocatable or portable classrooms to house students,” Bruner said.

In fact, each of the district’s six elementary schools has an average of eight portable classrooms, some as much as 25 years old, he said.

“These buildings, as you might imagine, are a poor solution for a permanent space. They burden districts like ours with high energy and maintenance costs and provide a less-than-optimal environment for teaching,” Bruner said. “We’re here today to celebrate a more sustainable and durable alternative made possible by the generosity of the state of Washington.”

Inslee also noted the potential CLT has to help rural economies.

“Demand for Washington’s timber industry has been in decline for decades, impacting many of our rural communities,” Inslee said. “The manufacturing of cross-laminated timber has the potential to strengthen local economies and grow jobs.”

An outside view of the new building at Jefferson Elementary School, which contains four classrooms — all built with cross-laminated timber. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

The potential of CLT

As far as the DES pilot project’s manager, Debra Delzell, knows, this is the first public building project with CLT in Washington. There have been only a handful of private buildings constructed with the new timber in the state, she said.

CLT isn’t being manufactured in Washington yet (the wood panels for the pilot program are from Oregon), but if logging communities were to get on board, a much-needed boost to local economies would result, assuming the demand for CLT grows.

The trees used to build CLT were passed over by the timber industry because they had not been economical to harvest, including trees as small as 4 inches in diameter, as well as diseased and dead trees. Removing them is helpful in another way, too, as those small and diseased trees can fuel wildfires and pest outbreaks, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

And because smaller trees take less time to grow, timber companies could grow and harvest them more like an agricultural product rather than waiting for them to grow for decades under traditional logging methods.

CLT is gaining a reputation in other parts of the world for saving builders time and money. The savings are especially dramatic on large, multistory buildings, Delzell said. For example, she said, Europeans are framing six-story structures with CLT in just one week.

“That’s where you see huge financial benefits,” she said. She added that CLT panels are as strong as steel and are treated to be just as fire resistant.

A welcoming space

The other four schools participating in the DES pilot are Maple Elementary School in Seattle, Greywolf Elementary School in Sequim, Adams Elementary School in Wapato and Valley View Elementary School in Toppenish.

The schools in Western Washington are experimenting with one design while the Eastern Washington team is trying another, Delzell said.

One of the classrooms built with cross-laminated timber at Jefferson Elementary School. (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Enterprise Services)

Jefferson’s four new classrooms are all in one building, with a hallway down its middle full of cubbies for students to store their belongings before entering the rooms. The classrooms, each about 750 square feet, are separated from the hallway by a glass wall. The CLT panels are exposed on most walls.

There are common areas for teachers to store classroom materials as well as shared drinking fountains and bathrooms.

“When you walk in this building, you have a feeling that you’re surrounded by cross-laminated timber,” Delzell said. “The thought is that it provides a really rich learning environment for the kids. It feels very cozy. … It’s a very clean, bright environment.”

Cross-laminated timber classrooms at Adams Elementary School in Wapato, shown above, were built using a different design than classrooms built at Western Washington schools. Two designs will help the state learn more through the CLT pilot project. (Photo courtesy of the state Department of Enterprise Services)

The design in Eastern Washington uses even more CLT in its classrooms, with the panels making up all four walls and the ceiling of each room.

Through the pilot, DES will examine how well CLT creates efficiencies in the construction process and if it achieves other environmental and economic benefits, according to the agency.

“It’s going to provide us with a lot of information,” Delzell said of the two classroom designs, “because now we have two models to work with.”