Wood as a feasible alternative for cladding? Here’s how.

How a client request evolved into an in-depth analysis of wood products and modification technologies.

Beautiful, resilient, and renewable, wood is quickly becoming a go-to material for future-ready construction. But with an array of timber products on the market, it can be overwhelming for designers to identify which material is best suited for their clients’ individual needs. “We often have a small window to make a product selection, and there’s rarely time to do extensive research to understand what’s available,” says Pratibha Chauhan, a planning and strategies consultant in our Minneapolis studio.

Fortunately, when the University of Minnesota Bell Museum sought our guidance on an exterior cladding product to meet their goals, Chauhan and the project team were able to do a deeper dive. They focused on a variety of timber modification processes, including white cedar shakes, wood acetylation, charred wood, and thermally modified timber (TMT), evaluating options based on cost, durability, source, warranty, and appearance. They landed on thermally modified eastern white pine—a species indigenous to Minnesota. Thermal treatment was selected for its ability to enhance the existing properties of the wood, increasing longevity and preventing decay.

Pratibha Chauhan and Doug Bergert discuss their experience with the research project and the Bell Museum

Construction on the museum was completed in 2018, but the research didn’t end there; the project-based exploration into the topic merely provided impetus for research validation, further study, and documentation of the team’s process. “Maybe it would have been a more interesting story if we were able to say the research took us down a different path from what we had initially selected,” says senior project designer Doug Bergert, also of our Minneapolis studio. “We apparently made the right decisions early on because Pratibha’s research validated the work we did as part of our own project research.”

Curious to dig deeper into various to timber modification processes, Chauhan started a dialogue with different industry partners, including the University of Minnesota’s Architectural Research Consortium and Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI). This partnership allowed academics, students, and practitioners to work together to explore and understand the nuances of different modification processes. “What began as project-related research evolved into a much larger conversation that benefitted more people than we initially envisioned,” says Chauhan.

Bell Museum wood products evaluation matrix
Classification of the different factors that affect wood modification

The Bell Museum Today

The entire process of designing, manufacturing, and building the Bell Museum was closely linked to the local economy, and the site’s biodiversity. In fact, 100% of the museum’s wood cladding was sourced from FSC-certified forests in northern Minnesota. Its overarching vision to create a landscape for learning about the natural history of Minnesota is also woven into the museum’s materiality. The exterior is an exhibition in and of itself: visitors can learn about the wood and its connection to the state’s local ecology.

Though the museum has been closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors and neighbors can still enjoy the surrounding landscape. “The site is open to the public and anybody can walk on there and engage this learning landscape even when the museum is closed,” says Bergert. “Being able to look at that building and understand that the wood came from Minnesota and supports local communities is a great story. We want to figure out a way to do that again on our next project.”

Click here to see the research report