Inspired design and construction give felled trees a whole new life

When the construction of a new school called for the removal of trees on-site, the project team devised a sustainable solution: Reuse the whole trees as columns throughout the building.

Autodesk Video

May 27, 2020


When the construction of a new middle school near Portland, Oregon, called for the removal of a number of trees on-site, the project team came up with a sustainable—and striking—solution: Repurpose the tree trunks as structural columns throughout the building. Construction giant Skanska, Pacific Northwest firm Mahlum Architects, and Madison, Wisconsin-based company WholeTrees Structures collaborated to select, scan, and install the community’s beloved trees in the school’s interior and exterior. Watch the video to learn how they did it.

View transcript

Kristen Fallin, Senior Project Manager, Skanska: I never would have thought, 15 years ago, of doing something like this, of reusing trees on-site as structural columns. Currently, the project that we’re working on is Lakeridge Middle School. It’s a new middle school in the community here.

Tony Vandenberg, Executive Director of Project Management, Lake Oswego School District: Our existing facilities here on-site had structural issues, aging infrastructure. And so the need for a new school brought this one up to the top for us.

Rene Berndt, Project Designer, Mahlum Architects: Sustainability was a big concern for the district, being aware of the environment and the footprint of the building, as well as mass-timber construction.

Vandenberg: So our architect brought forward a number of ideas. Early on, they brought forward WholeTrees as an option—that we could use some of the trees for structural columns within the building. And that started to catch on, and we decided to proceed that way.

Joe Terrenzio, Director, Seattle Division, WholeTrees Structures: WholeTrees is a small women-owned business from Madison, Wisconsin. Our mission is a very simple but ambitious one. We’re looking to fundamentally change the built environment by bringing stronger connections between the built and natural worlds. So we use structural round timber—essentially, tree trunks or large branches of trees—as columns, beams, trusses, and other structural and also decorative systems. We’re returning to, really, the original building materials that humans used and bringing that into the 21st century with modern understandings of design and engineering and material science.

Fallin: Very early on, before we were even on-site, we knew that we had this cool aspect that we were going to be working with and had to coordinate which trees from the site were going to be used for the future columns and the building. So it was really an early effort from all parties to figure out which trees were acceptable, to make sure that we protected them as we were felling them. And now we get to see them going into place.

Berndt: Basically, we’re using the emotional qualities and associations people have. When they see a tree, it actually brings back childhood memories: memories playing, maybe in the forest. And there’s a lot of brain research now about what kind of an effect that has on our well-being.

Pip Allen, Architect, Mahlum Architects: There was a goal from the beginning to have this be a very sustainable school in a variety of ways, both in energy performance but also in materials and material health.

Stephen Endy, Project Architect, Mahlum Architects: We have to coordinate closely with WholeTrees and Skanska to expedite our shop-drawing review, make selections for which species of tree would be interior or exterior.

Allen: By virtue of where the building had to go on the site, unfortunately, that was the area where there were some of the most beautiful trees. And so, obviously, we did our best to sculpt the building around several of the trees, but inevitably a lot of them had to come down. WholeTrees was a great way for us to continue to use those in the building—and not in some token way, like, make it into a bench, but actually as a tree in its original form.

Terrenzio: First, looking at the arborist report to assess the health of those trees and determine if they were things that could be used for structural use. And then once we identify that, yes, these are good, we come in with a laser scanner and scan those trees. From that data, we create renderings and files that we provide to the architects for them to use in their 3D rendering and modeling.

Allen: I think one of the benefits of working with WholeTrees and Autodesk is that we’re able to have the digital models of the actual trees we’re using. During design, we shuffled them around, we rotated the columns, and I remember at the last minute, we actually moved one of these columns from the commons to this northern part [of the building]. And seeing it in person and recognizing the column as the particular column that I chose to put in that location was really cool.

Vandenberg: I think they look great. It’s a good way to bring the nature inside. Living in the Pacific Northwest, trees are very important to us.

Terrenzio: Some of them have been here for decades and decades, and I know that the community both around the school, as well as the educators and students themselves, have very strong connections to these trees. The ability to redirect something that otherwise could have been a waste-stream product and turn it into something that is going to be used and valued for decades to come, I think it’s really the crux of the story for this project and one that we hope to replicate more and more across different sites across the country, wherever those opportunities come up. And we really hope that more projects like this will start to come up in the next few years to really get broader adoption.

Vandenberg: I think the significance of it for the students and the kids in the community, they’re going to be really excited to see the trees. They’ll probably be even more excited to hear the story of where they came from.

Recommended for you