Mass timber building boasts old-school construction with modern twist

Photographers call the time around sunrise or sunset the golden hour, when warm, soft light bathes everything. Stepping inside San Jacinto College’s new Anderson-Ball Classroom Building is like experiencing an all-day golden hour.

Laminated black spruce columns climb 40 feet to support double beams spanning a planked ceiling. Taking up one-third of the lobby’s visible envelope, all this timber gleams amber-gold.

Besides catching the eye, this 122,000-square-foot building, which celebrated its grand opening Aug. 16, for now claims fame as the nation’s largest mass timber instructional building.

Accidental champion

Part of the 2015 bond program, Anderson-Ball sits on the foundations of the former Anderson and Ball technical buildings on the Central Campus quadrangle. It houses math, pre-engineering, college prep, English, and humanities classes.

While its brick exterior ties it to the campus’ other legacy buildings, its inside is a different matter. Instead of steel, mass timber — wood layers laminated together in cross-pattern — supports the structure.

Throughout the building, the organic timber is exposed where possible. Visible or hidden, it provides structural strength. The College chose mass timber because of its environmental sustainability and cost stability amid Houston’s escalating steel prices and labor shortage.

Charles Smith, associate vice chancellor of fiscal initiatives and capital projects, calls San Jac an “almost accidental environmental champion”: Commercial development, building codes, and certification processes matured at the right moment to pursue mass timber.

“The market was ready for someone to do what we did, and we just happened to be there first,” Smith said.

Series of firsts
Bond Update

San Jac continues to build and update facilities thanks to the 2015 capital improvements bond program. Projects completed in 2021-2022 include …

Central Campus:

  • Welcome Center roundabout entry off Luella Boulevard
  • McCollum Building renovation with updated classrooms and entrances and improved courtyards

South Campus:

  • Jones Building renovation with new entrances and student meeting spaces
  • Domestic water service upgrade
  • New central plant
  • Maintenance building renovation

Maritime Campus:

  • New lifeboat davits

Generation Park Campus:

  • Additional parking on south side of campus

The original Anderson and Ball buildings came down in fall 2020. Weather, pandemic, and supply chain issues added only a month to the 16-month timeline.

Like Legos, the entire building was pre-designed, pre-manufactured, and pre-packaged, arriving in a kit. San Jac, Kirksey Architecture, Tellepsen Builders, and city code officials shared in the process from pre-modeling to punch list.

“We had a lot of firsts for us and for our subcontractors,” Smith said.

Besides using old-school but now vogue timber construction, Anderson-Ball showcases innovative technology. Electrochromic windows tint automatically to regulate glare and temperature. Solar tubes and panels make an appearance. Graywater and rainwater harvesting systems will reduce water needs for the Central Campus.

The building also rolls out collaborative faculty and student spaces. In the faculty suite, adjunct and full-time faculty share all amenities, with work and lounge areas to mingle. Side hallways feature “sticky spaces,” private glass-walled areas where students can drop backpacks, study, and talk.

Thanks to its innovative design, Engineering News-Record Texas & Louisiana named Anderson-Ball the 2022 Best Project, Higher Education/Research.

Past meets present

Although it smells of fresh lumber and showcases cutting-edge technology, Anderson-Ball still nods to the past. At the end of its two-story lobby is a stone bas-relief salvaged from Anderson. The carving — which features land survey equipment, a chemical plant, and a compass — tells the story of local industries in the College’s early years.

Mass timber is experiencing a rebirth. For now, San Jac is the trendsetter with the nation’s largest mass timber instructional building, but other schools are taking note.

“I fully expect to lose that title fairly quickly,” Smith said.

Mass Timber Instructional Building