David Maples: Talking Timber – Precedent Visits and Interviews

As a thesis student in the Tulane School of Architecture I have been researching the impacts of Carbon Plantations. My thesis focuses on how we can find local benefits to the global problem of rising carbon levels by developing mass-timber neighborhoods tied to agro-forestry. Engineered lumber is an emerging field with regional resources. During my research, I have struggled with the lack of expertise on the topic within New Orleans. Traveling to Arkansas to meet with members of their thriving timber industry was a large boost to my research.

At a conference last semester, I was approached by a former professor, Emily Baker, and we discussed my thesis. She now teaches at University of Arkansas which recently received a USDA grant to fund more research into engineered lumber and are in the process of building three engineered lumber buildings on their campus. Emily invited my up to visit to see their resources and watch a visiting lecturer that was part of their series on wood architecture. On the March 12th a lecture was given by Thomas Robinson of LEVER Architects, one of the leading experts in engineered lumber in the United States. Currently the firm is working on the tallest timber building in the United States after receiving a $1.5 million dollar grant from the USDA. He lectured on that project and some of his previous built buildings and the structural systems they incorporated. After the lecture I was able to attend a dinner with Thomas and discuss his work and my thesis more in depth which has provided a deeper technical understanding of acoustic issues of timber while establishing a professional connection as I look for a job after school.

I also used my time on this trip to visit multiple buildings that spoke to the cultural importance and embrace of wood in Arkansas. As I headed up to Fayetteville, I visited Thorncrown and Crystal Bridges. Driving up to the buildings I passed through miles of state and national forests. Although the buildings are almost half a century apart they each embraced and celebrated the wood that was grown all around them. Both exposed large spans of wood structure and brochures took pride in mentioning the wood was grown and milled in Arkansas. Understanding the deep connection to wood people who live near forests feel was something I had not fully understood until this visit. Both projects worked hard to celebrate the wood that was grown nearby and created marvelous spaces because of it. This understanding of the cultural power of wood is something I have been exploring in my thesis but had struggled to put into words until this trip.

On University of Arkansas’ campus, they are currently building three buildings out of engineered lumber. These three buildings will be the first engineered lumber buildings built in the South and bringing this innovation to the south is a large point of pride. I was able to walk one of the jobsites and view panels being craned and bolted into place. Seeing the swift and almost silent construction in person has greatly enhanced my understanding of how my thesis proposal will come together. I made multiple changes to my thesis research as a result of watching this installation. Being able to see construction in process and talk to workers was a unique opportunity that aided my learning more than any photos of the process could.

Visiting Arkansas provided crucial depth to my thesis and I am grateful I had the chance to go. Being in a location that values wood’s cultural importance and understands the technical needs allowed me to have pertinent and educated discussions about my thesis. During my oral defense alone, I referenced the trip three separate times. Thank you, Tulane, for giving me the chance to visit!

Written by David Maples, recipient of a David Cameron Taylor Memorial Summer Travel and Enrichment Program award, 2018. Photo by David Maples.