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Portland, Maine's $100M Art Museum Expansion to Utilize Mass Timber

Tue January 17, 2023 - Northeast Edition #3 & Maine Monitor

LEVER Architecture's winning Portland Museum of Art design entry. (Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art, Maine / Dovetail Design Strategists, rendering by Darcstudio.)
LEVER Architecture's winning Portland Museum of Art design entry. (Image courtesy of Portland Museum of Art, Maine / Dovetail Design Strategists, rendering by Darcstudio.)

A Portland, Ore., design firm has been chosen to create the expansion of the Portland Museum of Art (PMA) all the way across the country in Maine's largest city.

LEVER Architecture recently was named the winner in the much-heralded international competition to design the $100 million project that will add approximately 60,000 sq. ft. of space to the campus. Museum officials wanted a new facility that "knits together" with the PMA's four existing downtown buildings to boost its visitor count to between 300,000 and 500,000 people per year, according to, an online design news site.

LEVER, which has recently stood out for its application of mass timber constructions, will again incorporate the material heavily into the design of the PMA expansion, along with glass and terra cotta culminating with a curvilinear roofline meant to frame the movement of the sun in what the firm said is a reference to the local Wabanaki Indigenous community's conception of place.

The Maine Monitor reported that in building the museum expansion with mass timber, PMA and LEVER also are interested in utilizing a material that helps slow carbon emissions and staves off the most catastrophic effects of a warmer world.

"The PMA's competition brief was a challenge to the very definition of what a museum is," LEVER Principal Chandra Robinson said in a press release. "It was a call to action to designers around the world to question what it means to truly design for people, for communities, and for a specific place in the world. We would not have been able to challenge the idea of a museum without conceptualizing a new model of inclusive participation. Our teams' perspectives on Wabanaki culture, community engagement, and universal accessibility were at the root of this design process."

LEVER beat out three other finalists for the design contract in a competition that included 104 total entries from 20 different countries.

"This is one of the most significant moments in the PMA's 140-year history," PMA Director Mark Bessire said about the competition effort. "LEVER, and the team [it has] assembled, have demonstrated that they care deeply about our region's future, our unique arts culture and the needs of our community. They share our values of courage, equity, service, sustainability and trust, and we can't wait to get to work with LEVER and our communities to imagine Maine's next great landmark."

PMA has not yet released information on when the museum's construction in Portland is set to begin.

Strong, Sturdy, Eco-Friendly Material

Mass timber, short for "massive timber," is occasionally thought of as "plywood on steroids" as its composition is similar. Cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glulam — short for glue laminated timber — involves gluing together and compressing large planks of sawn, dried timber, usually softwoods like spruce, pine and fir.

The resulting beams are stronger than steel and can be used to erect towers rising hundreds of feet, like a recently unveiled 18-story, 280-ft.-tall architectural marvel in the riverside town of Brumunddal, Norway.

Closer to home, Bowdoin College is finishing Maine's first commercial mass timber structure, slated to open this spring, according to the Monitor.

Mass timber offers an attractive alternative for developers of large buildings, the news site noted, because rather than generating greenhouse gases during its production (like steel and concrete), trees store carbon while they are growing and after they have been cut down. The timber panels also are faster to assemble and also can be cut precisely to size, which means less construction site waste. It is also renewable as more trees can be planted to replace the ones used in building.

Mass timber beams are lightweight compared to other construction materials — the tower in Norway had to be weighed down with concrete floors to prevent it from swaying in the wind and sickening its occupants. Additionally, due to concerns around fire and water infiltration, insurance costs for mass timber structures are often high — one Canadian study found insurance costs were five to seven times higher for tall wood buildings compared to those built with non-combustible materials.

Maine Has No CLT Factories, Despite All Its Forests

During the construction phase, Robinson said, another of the primary challenges is where to get the timber. Choosing trees from sustainably managed forests is key: if you are trying to reduce the amount of carbon generated by construction, the trees cut down must be replaced. It also means using trees that are as local as possible, since shipping them thousands of miles cancels out any benefits.

There has long been interest in CLT and glulam in the state, but Maine currently has no manufacturers of either, noted Robinson. Several proposals to produce mass timber have fallen apart in recent years due to a variety of issues.

"It has frustrated me for the last six years that we have not been able to attract a mass timber manufacturer to Maine, the most forested state in the nation," Matt Tonello, head of Maine operations for Portland's Consigli Construction, told Green & Healthy Maine HOMES last year.

There is the potential to source the museum expansion's timber in Maine, Robinson explained, and have it made into structural panels in a nearby state. He also is hopeful the project will help the push for mass timber regionally.

"This is the journey we're going to embark on — to see what makes sense and see how we can leverage the materials Maine has."

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