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WSU’s research story comes out of the woodwork at new visitor center

visitor-center-80By Alyssa Patrick, College of Engineering and Architecture

PULLMAN, Wash. – As you walk through the new WSU visitor center, slow down and notice the wood around you. Natural blue staining on a bench shows how a Northwest pine tree lost its battle with troublesome beetles. Criss-crossed wood flakes span a wall-length wine display, making better use of timber resources.

The wood materials throughout the 4,000 square foot welcome center are more than just aesthetics. They reflect WSU’s long history of bringing engineering research and innovation to industry.

wine-display-450WSU’s Composite Materials Engineering Center (CMEC) developed the wood composites that make up the visitor desk and wine display, as well as many of the testing and grading methods used on other materials in the building. The center is a leader in research and development of composite materials.

“Visitors can come in and see and feel the research that’s happening on campus,” said Dan Barrett, principal of the project. “Those materials and the whole design tell a remarkable story of how WSU is furthering the institution, region and nation through its research and commercialization efforts.”

Barrett is an executive vice president of Sellen Construction, the company that led the design-build team with Olson Kundig Architects. Barrett and several other key players on the team are WSU alumni.

“Working on the design of the visitor center was super personal for me from the get-go,” said Steven Rainville, principal architect and Cougar alumnus. “I poured my heart into the project and worked with the team to make sure the spirit of the Coug Nation was represented in the building.”

ceiling-beams-200Part of that spirit is the innovative thinking that turns WSU research into effective products and processes, such as the grading and testing methods used on the visitor center roof and supporting glued-laminated beam materials. Those methods were developed by WSU faculty who subsequently founded a Pullman-based company, Metriguard, that is a world leader in lumber and veneer grading equipment.

The roof is also significant because it is made of cross laminated timber (CLT), a material developed in Europe that is gaining popularity in North America.

“CLT is like plywood on steroids,” said Don Bender, director of CMEC. “It involves alternating layers of stress-rated lumber to form thick plates that have advantages such as carbon sequestration, reduced construction times and superior fire resistance.

“High quality lumber needs high quality grading, and that technology was developed by WSU faculty,” Bender said. Research is under way at CMEC to enhance CLT technology with competitive grants from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Visitor center designers were happy to incorporate this material because of its ease of installation and because it used wood from trees killed by pine beetles, which is a large problem in the forests of the inland Northwest. The wood comes from lodgepole pines that are weak, dying and stained blue mountain pine beetle infestation.

“At Olson Kundig we make an effort to incorporate as much pine beetle-kill wood as feasibly possible, in order to harvest the trees before they rot or become a fire hazard,” said Rainville.

The design build team was dedicated to reducing its environmental footprint by using as many locally grown, harvested and manufactured products as possible. The landscaping also reflects a local feeling, incorporating textures and colors from the surrounding Palouse region.

“The visitor center is the gateway to campus, so we made sure it highlights the university, its research and the region to inspire pride in alumni, students and community members,” Barrett said.

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