Hands-on training doesn’t get better than this. After six months of construction, Washington State University assistant professor of architecture Robert Barnstone and 10 architectural design students recently completed what is essentially the world’s first wood-plastic building.
The project is a demonstration for the U.S Navy to show that wood-plastic products can be used wherever wood comes into contact with the ground, Barnstone says. The result is a structure at WSU’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory (WMEL) that represents the ultimate in “reuse and recycle,” built entirely by undergraduate students from the architecture and engineering programs. The overall project engaged students, professionals, and professors, who guided graduate students in tackling problems in structural engineering, code compliance, materials engineering, and design. The building will be used for storage and materials testing. Students’ labor was paid through a grant from the Navy.
Barnstone and his third-year architecture students utilized many materials invented at the WMEL, such as laminated veneer lumber, I-joists, and oriented strand board.
The composite lumber alone is a major advance in construction. It’s made of wood-pulp waste rather than old-growth timber, Barnstone says. “This is basically a building made of waste products. It’s about industry gearing up to use its own waste products and turn them into viable and profitable components for the marketplace.”
When combined with plastic, the wood waste can be extruded to practically any length necessary. “In this case, we extruded a few boards that are 35 feet in length and placed them on the south facade,” he says. “It is just not possible to have natural lumber with these lengths today.”
Because of the lumber’s flexibility, the team experimented with different configuration in structural portal-arch box-beam designs, similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian home of the 1930s. The WSU building features boxed beams made into whatever shapes Barnstone and the students wanted. Indeed, the structure twists up and down, bulges in and out–it almost seems to breathe.
“The whole thing is a big wave coming across the parking lot,” Barnstone says.
The builders installed three sets of exposure racks for future materials testing. The products on the test racks can be easily disassembled so new materials can be evaluated every couple of years.
Finally, to protect the wood-composite materials from the sun’s ultraviolet light, Barnstone’s team worked with paint colors and photo inhibitors that can alleviate degradation.
Like any other grand experiment, the building presented a few snags that tested the team’s adaptability. The structure rests on plastic piers, attached to I-joists by carriage bolts. The bolts split the first set of piers, after a third of the framing was completed. The team had to jack up the building to replace the split piers with new ones that were not as brittle. Thankfully, foreman David Curran, a fifth-year architecture and construction management major from Quincy, Washington, has eight years of construction experience. He’s familiar with construction delays and its snail’s pace.
“People don’t realize the tedious process construction is,” Curran says.