Winners of the 2021 U.S. Wood Design Awards

The winning projects of this year’s U.S. Wood Design Awards have been revealed! Washington D.C.-based nonprofit WoodWorks – Wood Products Council chose 19 honorees across nine categories that demonstrate wood’s value “as a nimble and modern building material, ushering in new precedents and challenging the public’s perception of its role in the built world.”

Duke University
Duke University

The projects, some of which were brought to completion in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, represent a dazzling array of wooden architecture, including grand chapels, multi-family housing, commercial buildings, university buildings and museums. They also showcase big trends in wooden architecture like cross-laminated timber, glulam (glued laminated timber) and charred siding. 

Trefethen Vineyard
Trefethen Vineyard

“This year’s award winners epitomize the innovation, resilience, and flexibility required for projects to flourish in a changing world,” said WoodWorks president and CEO, Jennifer Cover, in a statement. “We’re excited to see design and development teams approaching projects holistically, with buildings that respond uniquely to their communities.”

Oregon State University

Standouts include the “Wood in Schools” award winner, Oregon State University’s Forest Science Complex by Michael Green Architecture; “Commercial Wood Design” winner Cakebread Cellars in California by BCV Architecture + Interiors; “Institutional Wood Design” winner The Discovery Center in Pennsylvania by DIGSAU; “Durable & Adaptable Wood Structures” winner Trefethen Historic Winery in California by Taylor Lombardo Architects and Preservation Architecture; “Beauty of Wood” winner Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center at Duke University in North Carolina by Centerbrook Architects and Planners, and “Wood in Government Buildings” winner Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center in New York by nARCHITECTS.

Cakebread Winery

Do take a moment to look through all of the winners at the WoodWorks website to see all the cool ways architects are using wood for major projects around the country. It’s pretty inspiring to see this sustainable, renewable and beautiful material being integrated in bold, fresh and modern ways, and some of them are truly breathtaking.

Want to Lower Your Carbon Footprint? Use More Wood

Across the world, demand for wood is through the roof. Lumber, biomass and paper products are just a few forest products flying off production lines right now, putting pressure on timberlands and mills to produce a steady flow of this popular resource. On the surface, that might sound like a bad thing. Doesn’t it mean we need to cut down too many trees? Actually, no – as long as forests are sustainably managed. 

Wood is a sustainable and renewable resource, and new breakthroughs in science and technology are allowing us to use it in all kinds of spectacular ways, not the least of which is high rise construction. Manufactured forms of timber like CLT are proving to be as strong and durable as steel and concrete, giving it the potential to dramatically transform what urban architecture looks like.

As The New York Times recently reported, more and more developers are turning to wood, partially for its versatility and partially due to concerns about climate change. Demand for CLT is so high, the number of construction projects using it is projected to double annually to reach more than 24,000 by 2034. CLT makes use of trees that are 12 inches or less in diameter, which happens to align perfectly with recommendations for forest thinning to reduce wildfires. (A recent study found that Eastern White Pine is ideal for use in CLT!)

While steel and cement generate massive shares of greenhouse gases during every phase of their production, wood stores carbon by absorbing it from the atmosphere, offsetting the emission of greenhouse gases. That’s true both in the form of growing forests and even in finished wooden structures and products. In fact, wood products continue to store much of this carbon indefinitely, keeping it out of the atmosphere for the lifetime of the structure. And when the life cycle of a wooden building is complete, its components can be recycled into new objects to keep that carbon locked away.

The American Wood Council explains a little more about carbon storage in working forests:

“When a tree is harvested, some of the carbon stays in the forest and some is removed in the logs. Some carbon is released when the forest soil is disturbed during harvest, and as the roots, branches and leaves left behind begin to decompose. However, once the harvested area is regenerated, the forest once again begins to absorb and store carbon.”

“According to The State of America’s Forests report, less than 2 percent of the standing tree inventory in the U.S. is harvested each year while net tree growth is close to 3 percent. In Canada, less than 1 percent of the managed forest is harvested annually and the law requires regeneration. In both countries, responsible forest management has resulted in more than 50 consecutive years of forest growth that exceeds annual forest removals. As a result of these trends, forests in both countries have sequestered fairly high levels of carbon in recent decades.”

On top of all that, wood is an excellent insulator that can help improve energy efficiency – and people just love it. 

Worried about the potential for fire danger in high rise wood buildings? Read on:

Learn more about how demand for forest products actually helps keep more land forested:

Modern Treehouse Explores the Beauty of Wood

Woodnest treehouse

Who doesn’t love a good treehouse? Many of us spent our childhood in humble little forts tacked haphazardly to the branches of a backyard tree, but some people carry the tradition into adulthood with structures that are almost the size and complexity of a standard house. In Norway, a new creation by architecture firm Helen & Hard maintains the plucky spirit of handmade wooden treehouse, but elevates it (literally and metaphorically) into a beautiful modern getaway.

Woodnest treehouse windows
Woodnest treehouse view

“Woodnest” references the traditional wooden architecture of the area as well as the nests of birds and other woodland creatures. Suspended about 18 feet off the forest floor, the structure attaches to a living pine tree with a steel collar. The architects envision it as a place where visitors can pause to appreciate the smaller details of the natural environments we inhabit as well as the grain of the timber in the treehouse itself.

Woodnest treehouse front

Measuring just over 160 square feet, “Woodnest” is organized around the central tree trunk, and there’s a lot more to it than you’d imagine at first glance. There are four sleeping areas as well as a bathroom, kitchen and living space to enjoy, along with panoramic windows offering views of the fjord below and the mountains on the other side.

Woodnest treehouse in forest

“Stemming from the client’s wish to create a unique spatial experience that connects to both the ordinary and extraordinary sensation of climbing and exploring trees, our aim was to create a space that truly embodies what it means to dwell in nature.  The journey to the site begins with the 20minute walk from the town of Odda, on the edge of the fjord and up through the forest via a steep winding path. Each treehouse is accessed via a small timber bridge, leading the visitor off the ground, into the structure and up in to the tree.”

Woodnest treehouse ceiling

“At the very core of the project is the appreciation of timber as a building material.”

” Inspired by the Norwegian cultural traditions of vernacular timber architecture, together with a desire to experiment with the material potential of wood, the architecture is structurally supported by the tree trunk itself, and formed from a series of radial glu-laminated timber ribs. The untreated natural timber shingles encase the volume creating a protective skin around the building, which will weather over time to merge and blend with the natural patina of the surrounding forest.”

Woodnest treehouse bridge

The wooden bridge leading to the treehouse from the path brings a little bit of playfulness to the project. Is it enough to make you want to design your own, or what?

Modern Rambler Takes Wooden Homes in a Refreshing New Direction

Wooden rambler house

Ramblers, also known as ranch-style houses, originated in the U.S. in the 1920s as homeowners sought a more informal and casual style of living. Usually rectangular or L-shaped, these single-story residences have a flat, open layout, often with multiple entrances to the outdoors. The style peaked in the mid 20th century and fell out of popularity for a while, but now, it’s making a comeback in all sorts of new forms, including this one.

Wooden rambler house bedroom

All-wooden homes are rarely designed in the rambler style, but architect Nicolas Dahan’s family home in southwestern France begs the question ‘why?’ Simple and minimalist without being the slightest bit boring, the house features identical dimensions for both the floor and ceiling to create a mirror effect. That encourages inhabitants to look out through the many glass doors and windows and feel connected to nature.

Wooden rambler house after dark

“To enter the pine forest is to enter the house,” says the architect. “The site itself is integral to the architecture. The pine and oak trees provide shelter from strong winds. The ocean, though not visible, is so close that the sound of the surf rhythms the day. Nature runs through the bedrooms and the living room. The house is built where the air flows.”

Wooden rambler house door
Wooden rambler house finish

Another thing that makes the “Maison en Bois” unique is the fact that the builders gave the wood of the home the same care you’d usually see in furniture. The larch was sanded to achieve a glossy finish, and the hollow joints show no visible screws or nails. The home is more modern than you’d expect to see in a forest, but both the finishing and the layout makes it feel fresh and interesting.

Wooden rambler house inside

Ramblers are gaining popularity for some excellent reasons, the most important of which is that they’re accessible. Not only are they safe for young children, lacking any stairs or split levels, they’re perfect for multi-generational households with older family members.

Stunning New Wooden Design & Research Center at the University of Arkansas

Project Title

The future of timber is looking bright indeed, as illustrated by a stunning new building at the University of Arkansas. The Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation will be an extension of the Jay Jones School and a key part of the university’s Windgate Art and Design District. It will house the school’s expanding design-build program and fabrication technologies laboratories and serve as the new home to its emerging graduate program in timber and wood design.

The vision by Grafton Architects was selected above proposals by big names like Shigeru Ban Architects and Dorte Mandrup Arkitekter in a design competition funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. The jury said it “presents the most compelling landscaping plan, demonstrating possibilities for integrating the architecture and art programs in the Windgate Art and Design district.”

Project Title

“The building fulfill its designers’ ambition of being a ‘storybook of timber’… in syncing material use to program, this approach offers students first-hand opportunities to learn about timber. The wood structures are educational in an experiential and poetic manner. The dramatically soaring, rhythmical space is an architectural abstraction of a sensorially rich forest condition.”

Based in the U.K., Grafton Architects was founded by Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, both of whom have been selected as 2020 Pritzker Prize Laureates, the highest honor in architecture. Of the selection of their proposal, they say, “we are very excited about building our first building in the United States in Fayetteville, Arkansas. This building helps us think about the future optimistically, where the use of timber with all its possibilities becomes real, useful and hopefully loved.”

Grafton Architects Anthony Timberlands Center model

Farrell says the basic idea of the new Anthony Timberlands Center is that the building itself is a “storybook of timber.” It features a cascading roof that responds to the local climate, capturing natural light.

“We want people to experience the versatility of timber, both as the structural ‘bones’ and the enclosing ‘skin’ of this new building. The building itself is a teaching tool, displaying the strength, color, grain, texture and beauty of the various timbers used.”

France Will Require All New Buildings to Be Made From 50% Wood

Paris Olympic Village rendering by Dominique Perrault

Here’s an interesting update on the international trend towards more wooden architecture. The French government is implementing a new sustainability law requiring all new public buildings to include at least 50 percent timber in their construction.

Set to be implemented by 2022, the law will affect all buildings financed by the French state, according to Agence France-Presse. The decision aligns with the country’s Sustainable City Plan, launched in 2009, which aims for France to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

“I impose on all the public establishments which depend on me and which make the development or the policy of land to build buildings with materials which are at least 50 per cent of wood or bio-based materials,”  the country’s minister for cities and housing Julien Denormandie told the French news agency.

Taking Inspiration from the Olympics

Denormandie made the announcement following his seminar at the Living in the city of tomorrow event at UNESCO on February 5. He explained that building the 2024 Paris Olympics complex entirely from timber provided inspiration. “We made this commitment for the Olympic Games. There is no reason why what is possible for the Olympic Games should not be possible for the usual constructions.”

Hyperion building in France
Hyperion building in France

Dominique Perrault’s master plan for the Olympic Village will be located in the lower-income neighborhood of Saint Denis and feature a series of mid-rise passive or energy-plus developments made of wood or other sustainable materials, which could include hemp or straw. France’s first residential tower made from mass timber, Hyperion, is also expected to inspire new wooden buildings when it opens next year.

A Note on Fire Safety

When we talk about new large-scale timber projects, the most common question asked is, “but what about fire risk?” These kinds of wooden buildings are made from engineered wood like glulam, cross-laminated timber (CLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL). They’re light, strong, more sustainable than materials like concrete and steel, and yes, they’re designed to meet or exceed fire codes and standards. The reason we’re seeing more large-scale wooden architecture is that tests have proven the safety of these materials, leading to changes in building code around the world.

In fact, you can take it straight from firefighters. Here’s a brief snippet of an extensive piece on the fire safety of tall timber buildings.

“Most fires that occur in structures are room-and-contents fires, with the first material ignited being the contents of the room. As long as combustible building contents exist (e.g., furniture, computers, personal belongings, files), there will never be a truly non-combustible building. The building materials utilized in construction will never prevent a room-and-contents fire, but they must be able to resist the fire for an acceptable period of time. The automatic sprinkler system keeps the fire in check, preventing flashover, and the fire alarm notifies the occupants. Eventually, any building material will fail if the fire burns long enough. Steel will lose strength and fail, concrete will spall and fail, and wood will char and fail. That is why fire testing is essential for all building materials.”

“In December 2015, the ICC board of directors established an ad hoc committee of designers, code officials and members of the fire service, including firefighters, fire chiefs and fire protection engineers. Their task was “to research and design fire testing of mass timber and to draft code changes that ensure that tall mass timber buildings have redundant and rigorous fire safety systems that will protect the public that occupy tall mass timber buildings and the first responders that respond to them in emergencies.”

“The committee’s proposals identified a rigorous set of fire protection requirements that ensured that during reasonable fire events, no structural collapse will occur despite a complete burn-out of the room and contents. This performance is expected to occur even in the rare event of a sprinkler system failure. After two years of study, discussion, testing and analysis, the committee concluded that the proposals recommended would provide life safety protections to the public and first responders that are equal to or greater than tall buildings that are made of steel or concrete.”

For even more information, check out this update on the fire safety of timber construction at the Building Products Digest.