Guest Opinions

Unique challenge, achieved: Use as much Idaho wood, as little Idaho energy, as possible.

Plans for Idaho Arena include the main Vandal home court, practice court, men and women’s locker rooms, conference space and coaching and staff offices.
Plans for Idaho Arena include the main Vandal home court, practice court, men and women’s locker rooms, conference space and coaching and staff offices.

Recently the Idaho State Board of Education gave the go-ahead for a new arena on the University of Idaho campus. That is always exciting news for the architecture, engineering and construction industry as well as U of I supporters.

This building is likely to be a major innovation from any other new building in the state or even the U of I campus. It is a big win, before a game is ever played inside, regardless of which team you support. This building has a unique design challenge: use as much Idaho wood as possible and as little Idaho energy as possible.

The timber industry in Idaho has come a long way from old-growth logging, spotted owls and visually shocking forest management practices. Likewise, in the last 25 years the use of wood in construction has come to the forefront of sustainable practices and advanced engineering and is possibly the best single method to provide carbon sequestration (sustainability) the AEC industry has identified.

It is now possible in Idaho to build a very large structure from wood grown, harvested, engineered, processed and installed all in Idaho. This improved process reduces energy costs from standing tree to finished building. What has changed is innovative thinking that has resulted in a new approach to wood structures called “Mass Timber.”

What is “Mass Timber”? It is a new form of engineering small pieces of wood into really big (massive) pieces of structural material. The only real limitations currently encountered in size of components is the manufacturing equipment and the size of loads that can be safely and economically transported from the plant to the job site. Even that can possibly be overcome by using an on-site manufacturing technique, called “nail-laminated” mass timber. This means students on summer break can get a job nailing wood together into bigger pieces on a local site with nothing more than a pneumatic nail gun.

The best thing is that all those trees, while they are growing, sequester the CO2 that is a culprit in global warming. Not to mention trees have benefits in air and water quality, provide habitat for animal and plants, plus we can grow more of them than we need. It is a win for everyone involved.

As a near native of Idaho, I have come to love trees in all forms and locations. That doesn’t mean I want them to stand unmolested and then burn in summer wildfires. I want trees to be a contributing part of Idaho, not just something pretty in a picture. In my 25 years here, I have seen the loss of local timber industry jobs through restricted timber harvest and reduced market share due to perceived old-growth stigma, leaving communities throughout the state staggering and struggling to find new ways to keep our children in the state once they enter the workforce with meaningful careers.

But what about fire? Wood burns, doesn’t it? Repeated testing by respected national agencies reveals something special about massive-sized wood: It really won’t even catch on fire. If the surface does ignite, it is quickly self-extinguished due to the massive size of each piece. This is just like what happens when you put too big a log on the campfire: It is still unburnt the next morning.

The new arena is designed to showcase all of this with learning centers distributed around the facility for participants to see for themselves. Same goes with displays on how the building reduces its energy consumption with good design and construction techniques that have been proven to work. The campus even produces energy by using sawdust as fuel for a central plant.

Once upon a time, a state elected official told me: “We were so backwards in Idaho, we became forward thinkers.” This sure seems to be an example of how we had the right idea in growing and harvesting trees. We just need technology and best management practices to catch up with us. Yay! Trees!

Ty Morrison is twice past president of AIA Idaho and the AIA Central Section, licensed architect in Idaho and Arizona, 25-year resident, lecturer at BSU Construction Management Department, College of Engineering (three courses), avid outdoorsman, snowboarder and permaculture designer.