To educate the public about the ecological plight of colony collapse disorder, which is threatening global bee populations, the University of Minnesota (UM) opened the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center on the bucolic grounds of the UM Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minn., in 2016. Designed by the Minneapolis office of architecture firm MSR, the 7,530-square-foot exhibition and education space, complete with outdoor beehives and a honey house, serves as the outreach facility for the university's Bee Lab, run by entomology and apiculture professor Marla Spivak, a MacArthur Fellow.
The metal-roofed, timber-clad building takes its cues from the 39-acre site, a former farmstead complete with a red barn and grain silo, and from agrarian vernacular architecture, characterized by features such as gabled roofs, exposed timber structures, and open interiors, says MSR founding principal Thomas Meyer, FAIA, the project's partner in charge. Written accounts of the farm’s early owner were also a touchstone. “[H]e was a beekeeper and had an orchard as well, so it was really meaningful that we brought bee education back to that site,” says project manager and MSR associate Eric Amel, AIA.
To create a hierarchical relationship between the new building and the existing barn—which Amel notes is “actually quite small”—the architects divided the former into two distinct masses: a single-story entrance and honey house, where honey extraction takes place, and two double-height wings, which contain a learning lab and exhibition gallery.
It is inside this gallery that an eye-catching series of 15 exposed glulam trusses draws visitors’ eyes upward. The trusses, which each span 30 feet and collectively run the 60-foot length of the gallery, resulted from the architects’ desire to expose the building structure and also imbue a sense of delicacy.
“We opted to go with thinner members and more of them, at somewhat of a premium, because of the loveliness of that rhythm,” says Amel, who credits project architect and MSR associate Chris Wingate with the idea. “The frequency of those members made it sing.”
Combined with the suspension cables of the space’s metal light fixtures, the array of horizontal steel tension rods and angled wood trusses becomes hypnotic. “It also hints that the roof itself has two slopes,” Wingate says, adding that the simple trusses' triangular form resulted from “lots of iteration” and modeling.
Supporting the roof decking, the truss’s top chord—a single 3.5-inch-wide, 10.5-inch-deep glulam member—connects to a vertical glulam post of equal dimensions. Finalizing the triangle is the bottom chord, a pair of Douglas fir 2x8s, which attach to the posts 10 feet from the ground and angle sharply upward, meeting the top chord at the roof ridge. Wood blocking between the double chords refrains buckling, while a steel tension rod threaded through the blocking spans the width of the gallery, tying into a steel knife plate that joins the vertical truss member and top chord.
The trusses and their supporting glulam posts are spaced every 4 feet. These columns embed partially into the wall system, a Ray-Core structural insulated panel finished in the interior with plywood panels.
The architects worked hard to reduce visual clutter, concealing the fire suppression system behind the plywood panels and specifying a radiant heating and cooling system, thus removing the need for ductwork. And yet they chose to expose the majority of the structural connections in another nod to vernacular architecture. “Even the tie-rods, there’s a connection in the middle,” Wingate says. “It’s one little additional element for that thin, black, horizontal line, which is necessary, but if it’s done beautifully, it can add to the aesthetic of the space.”
The timber for the project was fabricated by the Boissevain, Manitoba, plant of structural timber supplier Western Archrib, and shipped to Minnesota, where the trusses were individually erected by Loeffler Construction & Consulting, in Lakeville, Minn. MSR's design team recalls the construction phase being relatively simple and straightforward, due in large part to the skill of the Loeffler team. “[T]hey saw this as a special opportunity to celebrate their craft and their skill set,” Meyer says.
The architects, too, are proud of the center’s craftsmanship and environmental performance. “[I]t is a kind of bellwether project for the future of sustainability,” Meyer says. “A lot of buildings in the last generation are unnecessarily complex,” but the near-net-zero-energy bee center “has a kind of modesty. It’s not cheap, but the money that’s spent on it is [spent] toward performance.”