“Find me a high school student anywhere in the country that knows where their school’s sheet rock was processed.”
It’s a provocative challenge at the heart of a new $7.5 million, 14,000 square foot addition to an environmental charter high school in New Haven, Conn.
It’s called Common Ground High School, and it offers students an innovative curriculum of urban agriculture combined with sustainable land-management practices. Last April it honored that earth-first ethic by opening the doors to the nation’s first building using cross-laminated timber (CLT) as a “stressed skin” assembly. The facility is targeted for LEED Gold certification.
School as Metaphor
The person responsible for the design (and sheet rock challenge) is designer and principal Alan Organschi at the New Haven, Conn.-based Gray Organschi Architecture, whose portfolio represents an eclectic mix of commercial, educational, and residential projects across the northeastern U.S.
“I suggested using mass timber as the construction material,” Organschi reports. “I said we would source the wood. We know exactly what Canadian forest this wood is coming from. The school will be a great pedagogical lesson for the students. School leadership were committed from the beginning.”
Working in close collaboration with co-principal Elizabeth Gray, along with local timber and structural engineers, Organschi and his team devised a construction strategy that deployed cellulose-based building materials throughout the addition. Black spruce CLT panels act as the tension surface and final ceiling finish. Vertical CLT panels form bearing and shear walls, while glue-laminated rafters and heavy timber trusses span the large ground-floor multi-purpose space.
Black spruce was selected because it’s “super dense and has an incredibly high bending stress capacity,” Organschi says. “The grain is super tight and very beautiful. It’s an exciting material to work with.”
Supportive Code Officials
City of New Haven building code officials proved virtual partners. “The building authorities and fire marshal are incredible. They’re very supportive. They read the documentation. They know all about charring and heavy timber construction and balancing. Sometimes they even present code information that helps us innovate,” reports Organschi.
“Wood is remarkably durable, protective, and has enormous bending elasticity, a huge seismic benefit. It’s also a beautiful material that looks good even when scuffed. Wood is also forgiving. If you make a mistake in fabrication, you can easily correct it in the field. That’s not easy to do with steel, and you certainly can’t do that with concrete.” Organschi says that the school addition was built in just four weeks by a crew of five, using prefabricated materials.
The staff and students of Common Ground couldn’t be happier with their new addition. “It’s a triumph for the school, the state of Connecticut, and education building design.
“Common Ground students can point on a map where the wood for their school was grown and the CLT fabricated. That’s a connection that matters. Students are proud of their school.”