Clear Eyes, Whole Trees, Can't Lose

WholeTrees is smartly repurposing timber across the Midwest

The timber trusses of the Festival Foods Grocery Store during installation. (Courtesy WholeTrees Structures)

Wisconsin-based design and construction company WholeTrees Structures finds both architectural opportunity and environmental advantage in designing and building with intact tree trunks that would otherwise be used for firewood or pulp. Amelia Baxter and architect Roald Gundersen founded WholeTrees 12 years ago to build new markets for “cull trees,” or trees marked for removal from managed forests. At the time, designers were generally less aware than they are today of the carbon footprint associated with engineered building materials. Intact wood has a lighter environmental impact than engineered wood and a much lighter impact than steel. The company also invests in research and development, generating new technologies and products as part of its business model. As a result, it can cost-effectively grade, engineer, and manufacture small round timber into columns, trusses, beams, and joists. Even in today’s state of climate awareness, WholeTrees is still on the cutting edge of producing unmilled timber for commercial construction with products that are structural, sculptural, and sustainable.

Festival Foods Grocery Store

Interior of a grocery store with tree-like columns

The Festival Foods Grocery Store resembles a forest inside. (Courtesy WholeTrees Structures)

The Festival Foods Grocery Store in Madison, Wisconsin, features WholeTrees’ largest natural round-timber trusses, which facilitate spans of up to 55 feet. The structure showcases the potential of unmilled lumber without compromising strength or visual impact, and the whole timber in combination with steel embodies a junction of nature and technology. The trees that make up the trusses were harvested during the City of Madison’s campaign against the emerald ash borer, an invasive insect lethal to local ash trees, and the standing columns are red pine sourced from just outside of the city.

Lakeridge Junior High School

Digital rendering of a tree created by WholeTrees

Digital models were created of every tree used in the Lakeridge project. (Courtesy WholeTrees Structures)

Exterior of a squat school with timber columns

Rendering of Lakeridge Junior High School. (Courtesy Mahlum Architects)

WholeTrees repurposed 29 trees cleared from the project site as structural members for a new building designed by Mahlum Architects for Lakeridge Junior High School in Lake Oswego, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. The company harnessed a 3D-scanning system known as lidar to create digital models of the trees that included every nub, notch, and scratch. These models ensured each tree met the structural and spatial design parameters of the project. The 3D files created through this process can be shared with engineers and architects, allowing building professionals to confidently fabricate and specify related products, and architects to precisely visualize the organic material in their designs.

Blakely Elementary School

Interior rendering of a school with Y-shaped timber columns

Interior of the Blakely Elementary School.
(Courtesy Mithun Architects)

WholeTrees’ first project in Washington State developed a new steel connection to help meet the seismic requirements of the region. WholeTrees harvested, processed, and delivered 14 straight and branched tree columns rising up to 25 feet tall for a school on Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle, which was designed in collaboration with Seattle-based architecture firm Mithun. Blakely was the first project to adapt WholeTrees’ explorations into 3D-scanning technology for every column in a built project. The technology allowed the company to scan trees in its storage lot and share the resulting information directly with engineers and architects.

Maharishi University Sustainable Living Center

Tall slender columns

The entrance of the Maharishi University Sustainable Living Center resembles a forest. (Courtesy WholeTrees Structures)

Located in Fairfield, Iowa, Maharishi University’s Sustainable Living Center was required to comply with the International Living Building Challenge’s mandate to use materials sourced within 300 miles of the project site. WholeTrees delivered 22 columns, 24 beams, and 2 structural arches harvested from managed woodlands in southwestern Wisconsin. Realized with sustainability-focused architecture practice Innovative Design, the project exceeded the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum standard. The building’s entrance features a narrow corridor of massive but slender trunks, which creates the sensation of being among trees while still being inside.

A large timber frame being raised into place

The living center during construction. (Courtesy WholeTrees Structures)

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