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OPINION | REX NELSON: Using Arkansas wood

by Rex Nelson | May 22, 2022 at 2:00 a.m.

I'm watching students make presentations at an event sponsored by the University of Arkansas' McMillon Innovation Studio. It's known as Demo Day, time well spent as I work on a column about the thriving startup culture in northwest Arkansas.

But I'm most intrigued on this Wednesday afternoon by the place Demo Day is being held.

Adohi Hall on the Fayetteville campus is something special. At its heart, it's a residence hall. The buildings also serve as a test site for researchers studying the innovative use of cross-laminated timber panels. The hope is that the success of this project will encourage future use of such materials across the country, revitalizing the Arkansas timber industry.

UA professors received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities to measure moisture content of the panels. The principal investigator is Tahar Messadi, who holds the title of 21st Century Chair in Sustainability at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

Two five-story residential buildings are connected by a third building that provides a common area. The 202,000-square-foot project with 708 beds cost $79 million. Students moved in prior to the 2019 fall semester. Adohi is the nation's first large-scale mass timber residence hall.

Adohi is a Cherokee word for "woods." It was selected due to the heavy use of timber in the design and to honor the native people who passed through this area on the Trail of Tears.

Cross-laminated timber panels consist of several layers of kiln-dried lumber boards stacked with the wood grain running in alternating directions. The layers are bonded with structural adhesives and pressed to form a solid, straight, rectangular panel. An odd number of layers form each panel. The residence hall was built with five-layer panels.

According to the Fay Jones School: "Finished CLT panels are lightweight yet strong, and they offer superior acoustic, fire, seismic and thermal performance. These prefabricated wood panels also are fast and easy to install and generate almost no waste on the construction site. This sustainable, cost-effective alternative to other structural materials also offers a significantly lower carbon footprint.

"In this residence hall, CLT panels are only used in floors and ceilings. The columns and beams are made from glue-laminated pieces, which are bonded together with the wood grain of each layer running parallel rather than perpendicular, as CLT panels do. Researchers are focused on studying the moisture in CLT panels because--just as the branches of rain-soaked trees become limp and sag--wood with too much moisture loses its stiffness and becomes weak. Wood is also susceptible to mold and fungus, and its wetness could cause steel connections to rust."

"Moisture could be very low at one location, but it could be high at another," Messadi says. "You want to track that in order to understand the range of moisture fluctuations. Our aim is to find out whether a stable reading is maintained. Once we look at that data, we'll then understand the sort of remedies we'll be able to bring forward to make sure that the CLT behaves in the right way and in the right setting, according to newly developed standards."

The mass timber emphasis is part of an effort by Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School, to find additional uses for Arkansas timber. MacKeith's initiatives are the focus of the cover story in today's Perspective section. Arkansas, which is 56 percent forested, is growing timber far faster than it can be harvested. New uses are needed.

"Mass timber is interesting because sustainability is a growing issue in the construction industry," says Cameron Murray, an assistant UA professor of civil engineering. "Concrete and Portland cement are hard on the environment. They can release a lot of carbon dioxide, whereas wood is a renewable resource. In Arkansas, we have an underutilized timber industry, so it's a potential opportunity to make panels here or sell our lumber to places that make panels."

The university will take its efforts to the next level when the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation is completed. It will serve as a regional center for research and development of wood products and cutting-edge approaches in sustainable construction materials.

Following an international competition that attracted 100 submissions, Grafton Architects of Dublin, Ireland, was commissioned to design the center in consultation with Modus Studio of Fayetteville.

The project moved forward after a $7.5 million gift in 2018 from Anthony Timberlands, which has operations throughout south Arkansas.

"Coming to know the entire Anthony family has been a transformative experience for me," MacKeith says. "Their deep knowledge of the Arkansas forests is rooted in the lives of their forebears and in the communities of south Arkansas. They can speak to the virtues of native loblolly and shortleaf pine, as well as the hardwoods that thrive in the lowlands. They have a perspective that's environmental, economic and social."

The first Anthony family sawmills were mobile entities. Once trees in a certain area were cut, the mills moved. Garland Anthony operated his first mill in 1907 near Bearden. It moved throughout the area during the next dozen years.

Anthony Brothers Lumber Co. was formed by four brothers in the 1920s in Calhoun County. Brothers Will, Oliver, Garland and Frank had ownership. Frank and Will later established their own mills, with Will in the Murfreesboro area and Frank in Union County.

Garland, meanwhile, established partnerships across south Arkansas, north Louisiana and east Texas. Garland's son Ted passed away unexpectedly in 1961. Ted's son John Ed then took the reins, followed by John Ed's son Steve.

John Ed Anthony formed Anthony Timberlands in 1974 as a Bearden-based management company for all the mills. Those include pine sawmills, hardwood sawmills, a hardwood flooring plant, a wood-treating facility and a hardwood mat facility. The company owns more than 200,000 acres of timberland and has more than 1,000 employees.

"Considering the importance of the forest industry in Arkansas, our flagship university should be a leader in making these products," John Ed Anthony says. "It's a given that this will be a successful endeavor because of the merit of these renewable and environmentally friendly components. We would like our university to be at the forefront of this move. Breaking into a major market is a big task. But with CLT and other concepts, years of construction can be reduced to months."

The Fay Jones School says the Anthony Timberlands Center will serve as home to the school's "graduate program in timber and wood and as the epicenter for the school's multiple timber and wood initiatives. It will also house the existing design-build program and digital fabrication laboratory, as well as a new applied research center in wood design and innovation."

"As an architect, Fay Jones taught us that a two-by-four is much more than just a two-by-four," MacKeith tells me. "An architecture school can be much more than an architecture school. A university can be much more than a university. We can play a role in making the Arkansas forests far more valuable. A lot of our students come from small towns in the forests of Arkansas. We don't want them to apologize for that. We want them to be able to go back to those towns and capitalize on what they've learned here.

"We know value-added manufacturing can increase the value of our Arkansas forests tremendously. We know affordable housing can be built from mass timber. Let's graduate students who care about things like affordable housing and healthy forests. Let's graduate students who can connect the dots in these areas. We're in the middle of the timber belt. We're perfectly situated logistically. Let's take advantage of that."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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