Design Aesthetics: Creating Warmth with Wood

The Chloe Clark Elementary School in Dupont, Washington, offers an example of design consciously aimed at integrating with the style of houses in the neighborhood. The school’s front entry resembles a porch, typical of the homes in this master planned community, so that the children feel welcome.

School design has come a long way since the "quick and cold" concrete structures of the 1950s. Today, architects work to create large, open spaces that meet project-oriented teaching styles instead of traditional, classroom-centered "chalk and talk" presentations. Wood is increasingly used to design warm, friendly learning spaces and add visual value. Exposed wood construction provides structural integrity as well as eye-catching design.

The types of materials used in school construction are quite often tied to regional preference and availability.

"School designers in some states, such as Texas, use masonry because that’s what they’re familiar with," said Tom Bates, vice president of Burr Lawrence Rising + Bates architectural firm in Tacoma, Washington. "It’s readily available and therefore a cost effective material. In the West, wood has long been the preferred material of choice. Architects are more in tune with the cost effectiveness of wood and the design flexibility it provides," added Bates, who is also a member of the Committee on Architecture for Education, a national AIA committee.

The use of structural engineered wood products-exposed glulam beams, trusses, and panelized wood roof systems-enables architects to design not only high quality and durable schools, but also schools that provide a warm and inviting place for children to learn.

"A desire to create a friendly environment is the single biggest factor in our decision to use engineered wood products in educational facilities," says Bill Payne, executive director for the Indianapolis architectural/engineering office of Fanning/Howey Associates. "Our design process is very interactive with clients. When we sense that a community is looking for a facility with more warmth we turn to wood."

Changing the Mindset in Texas

The Dallas-Ft. Worth area is home to several of the fastest growing school districts in the country, with plans for more than 80 elementary, middle and high schools over the next eight years.

Nearly every existing school is steel post and beam construction, with steel bar joists and metal decks. To find out why steel and concrete dominate the market, Ed Underwood, a senior engineered wood specialist with APA – The Engineered Wood Association, surveyed architects, engineers, school consultants, and school officials.

"Fire safety was probably the number one concern," said Underwood.

He noted that area building codes require sprinkler systems and a host of fire control measures in school construction, whether it’s steel, concrete, or wood. Should structural elements come under fire, wood beams have outlasted comparable steel beams in controlled fire tests, said Underwood.

Many people were also under the impression wood construction itself is a more costly avenue, but according to Underwood wood framed construction methods are very competitive compared to steel post-and-beam construction, even with lumber prices at near record highs.

A January 2003 independent cost analysis of an all-steel post-and-beam elementary school compared three wood framing options to the recently completed superstructure. Except for the gym, neither the exterior or interior architectural appearance, nor dimensions of the facility were altered.

"The cost savings to the superstructure were significant," said Underwood.

The third option (and most extensive use of wood) replaced the metal roof deck, and all load- and non-load bearing walls with wood. Cost reductions to the superstructure were 36 percent, or roughly $250,000. The other significant advantage: shortened construction schedules. The wood option described above is projected to finish 12 weeks ahead of the steel option because wood requires much less fabrication and erection time, and does not require specialized trades.

Mold and termites were also cited as factors against using wood. But as Underwood explained, mold grows on any surface, including metal and glass, if moisture is present. That means proper moisture detailing is critical to the overall success of any building. And that goes for termites, where the measure of success is determined by the pre-treatment of soil and ongoing pest control operations that all schools employ.

"We can show school officials how to save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, enhance the learning environment, and get their projects done on time," Underwood added.