San Jac to construct nation's largest mass timber instructional building

Feb 21, 2020Courtney Morris

Despite humble beginnings, the new instructional building at the San Jacinto College Central Campus will represent a first for the region and nation. When its doors open in fall 2021, it will be the largest instructional building in the U.S. constructed from mass timber.

The 120,000-square-foot building will reuse its predecessors' foundations, cost less than typical construction, and arrive in pieces like a Sears catalog kit house. Replacing aging Anderson Tech and Ball Tech on the Central Campus' quadrangle, the building will use a centuries-old technology that is experiencing a 21st-century rebirth.

Like architectural beams of the past, mass timber sections — layers of wood laminated together in cross-pattern direction — will not only support the structure but provide natural beauty.

"It's an organic material. It feels good when you look at it," said Chuck Smith, San Jacinto College associate vice chancellor of fiscal initiatives.

Legacy expansion

Mass timber conference
San Jacinto College hosted a mass timber conference in February 2020.

Smith is heading the construction project, which is part of the 2015 San Jac Tomorrow Capital Improvement Program.

Still in the design development phase, the mass timber building will contain almost 60 classrooms for math, pre-engineering, college prep, English, and humanities courses. Last year, San Jacinto College received a $100,000 U.S. Forest Service grant toward building design and pre-construction education.

After Anderson Tech and Ball Tech come down this fall, new construction will begin around November. The instructional building will feature a brick exterior that ties it to the Central Campus' "legacy" buildings, and its two-story lobby will showcase cathedral-style arches and a stone bas-relief salvaged from the Anderson Tech facade. This bas-relief — which includes land survey equipment, a chemical plant, and a compass — tells the story of local industries in the College's early years.

Mass timber benefits

Beauty aside, mass timber presents many advantages. Chief is cost containment in a fluctuating construction market. According to Smith, design and construction take about three years, and in the past five years, Houston has witnessed escalating steel prices and a shrinking labor supply.

Amid the steel and concrete jungle, San Jacinto College considered mass timber for its environmental sustainability and cost stability.

"The College is not in the business of promoting mass timber as a technology," Smith said, "but this was a cost-effective way for us to provide the space to educate our students."

Mass timber buildings require fewer laborers, are quicker to construct, and use less production energy than steel or concrete. After unloading the numbered mass timber pieces from a truck, workers simply piece the building together like LEGOs.

In fires, mass timber performs better than steel. While steel melts and bends, mass timber's exterior chars and hardens, protecting its core.

"Eventually, you arrive at the point to say, Why aren't we already doing this?'" Smith said.

Mass timber is finally picking up in the U.S. San Jacinto College stands among the second wave of adopters, learning from first innovators' trial and error.

"We're pursuing this because we're resource conscious and forward thinking. We are more comfortable with the solutions mass timber offers than the challenges it presents," Smith said.

Our previous projects were based on legacy, but now we're focusing on the future. Instead of looking in the rearview mirror, we're looking through the windshield.
Mike Harris
Director of Construction Services

Conference host

In mid-February, San Jacinto College and the City of Pasadena cohosted the Texas Gulf Coast Mass Timber Conference at the Central Campus. The event convened experts and local contractors, architects, engineers, and building code officials for topics like current mass timber projects worldwide, contractor experience with this technology, and construction design for natural disasters.

"If we're going to be one of the first institutions to build this kind of building in Texas or the greater Houston area, it's part of our responsibility to educate local construction companies and trades on how these buildings come together," Smith said.

From the beginning, San Jacinto College has collaborated with the city to ensure the mass timber construction meets code and is as safe as any other College structure. The College's Board of Trustees also gave its thumbs-up.

"When we were able to prove to them that we were doing our due diligence working collaboratively with the city and forest service, they were more than happy to have us explore further," Smith said.

Thought, practice leader

As learning evolves from instructor lectures to student collaboration, campuses must also adapt. As a higher education institution, San Jacinto College strives to be not only a thought leader but also a practice leader.

Mike Harris, director of construction services, says the College's new constructio — particularly the mass timber instructional building — honors the old while incorporating modern technology, energy efficiency standards, and student needs.

"Our previous projects were based on legacy, but now we're focusing on the future. Instead of looking in the rearview mirror, we're looking through the windshield," Harris said.

Note: Conceptual rendering courtesy of Kirksey Architecture