Cities Made of Wood? KCAD Explores Urban Construction Possibilities

Posted November 20, 2017 in Faculty, Master of Architecture, Student

Students and faculty from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University’s (KCAD’s) Master of Architecture () program are exploring ways of infusing one of Michigan’s most abundant natural resources into the cityscapes of the future.

For the past year, an informal research consortium that includes the KCAD , the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Michigan Technological University has been working to connect Michigan’s traditional forest product industries to its construction industries.

“We have an abundance of hardwood trees in Michigan, and incredible advances in engineered wood have sparked a growing interest in tall wooden buildings in the field of architecture,” says Program Director Brian Craig. “There’s a lot of opportunity to innovate through design, and that’s where our students’ work is focused.”

Wooden buildings have long been limited by code to no more than four stories. Now, a rapidly evolving material known as cross-laminated timber (CLT)—multiple layers of timber bonded together to create panels that are lightweight yet comparable in both strength and stability to concrete, masonry, and steel—is enabling architects to envision wooden buildings on a much larger scale. What’s more, entire wall systems can be precut and outfitted in a factory with all of the necessary electrical service and windows, drastically accelerating construction timelines.

Last spring, students experimented with using CLT to design buildings that would function as live/work spaces in an urban environment. While they were encouraged to innovate, the students also had to be mindful of existing building codes to ensure the feasibility of their design solutions.

Architecture student work(above and below):  student work 

Architecture student work

“Students had to make the connection between their design intent, the project goals, the materials, and design and execution,” says Craig. “Most importantly, they were able to look at an existing material in a fresh way, and ask, ‘what are creative ways this might be used?’”

Craig then plugged his students’ design research into larger conversations about the possibilities inherent in Michigan’s bioeconomy, presenting their projects at the Michigan Forest Bioeconomy Conference in Grand Rapids in February of 2017.

“CLT structures have a much smaller carbon footprint, provided that you are sourcing materials locally, which we have the ability to do here in Michigan,” says Craig. “The material itself is expensive at present, because there are limited facilities to make it. However, it has the capacity to increase the speed of construction to the point where the cost savings time-wise outweigh the materials cost.”

This summer, students headed out to Portland, Ore. for the program’s built-in summer-fall intensive session, in which they are immersed in a city to observe the relationship of social context, cultural diversity, and human behavior with the built environment, examining all the factors that make that city sustainable. As a city that’s already embraced the potential of larger buildings made of CLT, Portland is a natural extension of the student’s work in class.

Architecture student work (above and below):  student work

Render of stylish building at night time

“Experiences like this are what make our program unique,” says Dean of Academic Affairs Charles Wright. “We want our students engaging with new and different places and spaces so that they can develop a broad perspective of architecture.”

Craig plans to continue incorporating research around CLT, and further participation in the research consortium, into the curriculum in the future.

“The consortium has been a platform for active and engaging learning experiences, and that’s something we want to continue, especially given the potential for research grants in the future,” says Craig. “We’re excited to see where things go from here.”  

Learn more about KCAD’s Master of Architecture program at