Richard Barnes

Perched atop an existing parking garage on the campus of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation Center for Conservation was shaped primarily by light. Designed by Lake|Flato Architects, the two-story, 38,000-square-foot facility is organized around four cantilevered, zinc-clad bays that house the center’s main conservation studios.

It may seem counterintuitive, but art conservators actually need large amounts of high-quality daylight to help them accurately render colors and detect issues with centuries-old works. The center’s bent-shed-style roofs bounce light down through clerestory windows into the center’s double-height studios. A subtle whitewash on the exposed underside of the dowel-laminated timber (DLT) roof deck increases the ceiling’s reflectivity and also prevents the wood from reddening the light’s hue.

Each studio is oriented in response to its program: the paintings studio, which requires large amounts of indirect light, faces north with a full wall of windows, while the sculpture studio faces south “because they need more direct, bounced light to see the nuance to the shaping of the sculpture,” explains firm co-founder and partner David Lake, FAIA, who’s based in Austin, Texas. “It was an interesting [challenge] to help each studio do what they do best.”

The studio bays feature an exposed timber superstructure comprising 11-inch by 8.6-inch spruce-glulam columns and spruce-glulam rafters, which taper from 24 inches deep at the roof bent to 5 inches at the eave and are spaced every 10 feet, 10 inches. “You sense how the superstructure works immediately,” Lake says.

Topping the rafters is a nearly 4-inch-thick, 33-foot-long timber roof deck. Lake says the system was chosen for its speed of erection but also to minimize the amount of roof components, such as insulation: “The wood deck immediately became the cost-effective solution.”

Richard Barnes
Courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Associate and project architect Graham Beach, AIA, adds that Lake|Flato initially specified nail-laminated timber (NLT) for the roofs but switched to DLT after timber contractor StructureCraft Builders, based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, demonstrated that DLT was more dimensionally stable than NLT and could be fabricated with greater consistency. DLT consists of softwood lumber panels laminated together and held in place via friction-fit hardwood dowels run through pre-drilled holes—no nails or adhesives necessary. For this project, spruce-pine-fir lumber was used with beech dowels.

The Blaffer Foundation Center is the first building in North America to use DLT panels, according to StructureCraft, which, not coincidentally, is the continent's first DLT producer. “The panels for the MFAH were the first panels off of their DLT line,” Beach says.

In addition to the custom whitewash finish that Lake|Flato developed with StructureCraft, which engineered the wood structure and connections, the DLT roof deck features kerf cuts spaced 1.5 inches on center, creating the appearance of individual wood slats; it's one of several standard profiles that StructureCraft offers. “We wanted the rhythm of the gap,” Lake says. “It’s a crisper delineation, like an individual board. And since we were whitewashing it, we thought it would add a little bit of texture and shadow to the ceiling.”

Houston-based Kendall/Heaton Associates served as the project’s architect-of-record.

To keep the studio aesthetic clean, most structural connections are hidden. The DLT panels are sized to align longitudinal seams with the centerline of their glulam support beams, while transverse joints are strategically considered within the roof geometry; one seam appears at the ridgeline, for example. The column–beam connections utilize an approximately 1.5-foot-long, 0.1875-inch-thick steel knife plate, attached with dozen 7-millimeter-diameter self-tapping screws.

Richard Barnes

In general, Beach says, construction went as quickly as planned, with all four bays framed within a week and a half. Extra hands on-site helped: The general contractor, Houston-based W.S. Bellows Construction Corp., lent its crew to StructureCraft, which handled the timber portion, because it wanted to learn how mass timber components were assembled—a wise decision since the mass timber market appears to be increasing.

Lake|Flato, for one, has several mass timber projects in the works right now, including a hotel and a seven-story spec office building. “We’re into it,” Lake says. “It’s a great material, and it’s getting more and more cost-effective, especially in the Northwest.”

It’s great, he continues, “to see new materials, especially materials that have a small carbon footprint and low embodied energy, being utilized in lieu of concrete and steel.” With mass timber, he says, “We’re in a renaissance.”

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