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Maine's Bowdoin College Uses Mass Timber to Erect Carbon-Neutral Buildings

Mon December 12, 2022 - Northeast Edition

Bowdoin College's new Barry Mills Hall (L) and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies will showcase mass timber and CLT construction. (Rendering courtesy of HGA)
Bowdoin College's new Barry Mills Hall (L) and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies will showcase mass timber and CLT construction. (Rendering courtesy of HGA)

In a continuing effort to be a carbon-neutral campus, Brunswick, Maine's Bowdoin College is edging closer to the finish of construction on a pair of new buildings built with mass timber, including cross-laminated timber (CLT).

Mainebiz reported that the school's Barry Mills Hall and the John and Lile Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies will total 50,000-sq. ft. when they are complete, likely in January. The Gibbons Center has already received a certificate of occupancy.

Although classes are set to resume Jan. 23, neither building will be used for classwork in the spring semester, the online news service reported Dec. 8.

Consigli Construction, with offices in Portland and Boston, is managing construction of the two timber-made structures.

John Simoneau, Bowdoin's director of capital projects, said the Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies will need several months to go through the process of setting up two exhibits, including moving artifacts from the current Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on campus.

Mills Hall will be dedicated in April and host a trustees' meeting in May, he added.

Bowdoin achieved its goal of being carbon neutral in 2018. For the new buildings, the college wanted to avoid using fossil fuels in both construction materials and in how they are heated and cooled. After ramping up its reliance on solar energy in recent years, Bowdoin is phasing out use of its central steam plant, meaning Barry Mills Hall and the Gibbons Center will use heating and cooling systems run by electricity.

"Think of it as an oversized electric water heater," Simoneau told Mainebiz.

In the case of the Gibbons Center for Arctic Studies, one of the themes of a planned exhibit is to show how climate change affects the Arctic region.

Mass Timber Use Offers Key Advantage

HGA, the project's architect, noted in a recent report that three common building materials — concrete, steel and aluminum — account for 23 percent of annual global carbon emissions. Mass timber, the firm added, carries embodied carbon advantages in that once the tree is harvested, carbon is locked within the timber for as long as it stays intact.

The two new buildings at Bowdoin, which are separate but connected by underground mechanical systems, will be the first in Maine built entirely of mass timber. Crews are building the structures with a mix of glue-laminated timber columns and beams, and cross-laminated timber panels, according to HGA.

While the building foundations are concrete, there is no structural steel or concrete used above ground, explained Matthew Tonello, project executive of Consigli. In addition, he noted the construction process was faster than if his company had used conventional materials.

Timber Building Represents New Frontier

Mass timber has been a key component in a range of construction projects nationwide, including apartment complexes, office buildings, retail spaces and even a flagship McDonald's restaurant in Chicago.

Mainebiz noted that while the Bowdoin buildings take mass timber to new heights in the state, the wood product has been used in other projects around Maine. For instance, Zachau Construction in Freeport utilized CLT in its construction of Wessex Woods, an Avesta Housing project in Portland, and for the new addition at the 317 Main Community Music Center in Yarmouth.

Mass timber also is emerging as a construction alternative, though for now lingering supply chain issues make it a challenge.

Just as Maine has an abundance of lobster which is later processed in Canada, the New England state has plenty of forests but for now there is no one manufacturing mass timber products there.

Not only that, but there are also no manufacturers of mass timber in the Northeast. Much of the supply of glue-laminated products and CLT products comes from Quebec, Alabama, Montana, the Pacific Northwest or Europe.

"Nobody makes it in the Northeast, so the nearest plant would be 14 hours away in Quebec," Tonello told Mainebiz.

For the Bowdoin project, much of the mass timber building material was sourced from suppliers in Austria.

That could change, however, as the University of Maine is working hard on an effort to develop timber products. Additionally, there are efforts in the private sector to create a mass timber production site in the state, the news site reported.

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