Skip to main content

Leers Weinzapfel Associates: On Collaboration, Sustainable Buildings, and Timber Structures

An early rendering of the Integrated Design Building created using SketchUp and V-Ray with post-processing in Photoshop. All images courtesy of Leers Weinzapfel Associates.

Leers Weinzapfel Associates is a Boston-based, award-winning practice specializing in architecture, urban design and infrastructure projects. They’ve recently worked on a tri-faculty building with an innovative timber structure for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. We caught up with Tom Chung, Principal, to learn more about how they went about designing a building for designers, and how effective collaboration helped the project team arrive at a compelling and sustainable design.

"We use SketchUp because it is nimble and easy to use and it allows us to develop our designs quickly. We start in SketchUp and stay there throughout the design process."

You had an interesting brief with this project: Designing an Integrated Design Building for three design departments. Tell us more about this project.

Our job was to design a new home for three departments related to the design of the built environment, currently spread across the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus: the departments of Architecture, Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning, and Building Construction Technology. The purpose was to bring these departments together so that they could have synergies, collaborate, and advance their disciplines.

The building needed to be smart and sustainable, and push the boundaries of spatial, construction and landscape design... all on a tight budget as the project was state-funded.

What were some of the interesting design problems you had to address with this project?

In addition to the programmatic concerns, we wanted to respond to the existing street contexts, and capture key views across the campus. Our site stretches between two streets with very different characters; one is faced with the larger sized buildings of the campus and the other with smaller structures that form the historic part of the campus. Using SketchUp, we tested several site locations, forms, and design approaches. We arrived at a massing that responds to both street conditions with an articulated courtyard nestled in between. Our Landscape Architect, Stephen Stimson Associates, helped us arrive at a well-resolved courtyard design as well as a sustainable landscape design for the entire site.

The two story commons has become a focal point for the project because it creates a communal space for the inhabitants and visitors of the building, responds to the landscape garden on the third floor and opens up on the ground floor to welcome the rest of the campus.

cross-sectional perspective through the IDB

A cross-sectional perspective through the IDB. It shows how the building’s massing responds to either street and the common’s relationship to the roof garden and connection to the campus.

This “commons” space is animated by a dynamic three-dimensional truss made up of Glulam beams and metal tension rods. Structurally, it has to support the roof garden, which has up to eighteen inches of soil and dense planting. This starts to test the boundaries of timber structures, but what better place to do that than a school designed for design?

dynamic timber and metal truss animates the commons and supports the rooftop garden

The dynamic timber and metal truss animates the commons and supports the rooftop garden.


Creating the commons roof structure you describe predominantly out of timber sounds pretty ambitious. Why did you choose timber over concrete or steel?

As a practice, we’re always curious about new materials and new ways of building. Alexander Schreyer, chair of Building and Construction Technology, was the main proponent of the timber structure on the client-side. It’s his area of expertise and a key research area for his department. Without that interest on Alex’s part, we might not have had the opportunity to investigate a timber structure. We enlisted the help of specialist timber structure engineers, Equilibrium Consulting, and what we’ve arrived at is the first mass timber structure of its size and scale in the United States! Pretty much all of the structure is mass timber: the structural frame is made up of glulam beams and columns and the floor deck is made up of an innovative combination of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) & concrete. This composite floor elegantly combines the material properties of wood and concrete to create thinner long spans that are durable, serviceable and great for vibration and acoustic control.

structural strategy and materials used in the IDB

Exploded axonometric projection showing the structural strategy and materials used in the IDB.

How did SketchUp help your design process?

Our office uses SketchUp as a design tool from the beginning of pretty much every project. We can model things easily because it’s nimble and agile. We test different massings and concepts. Depending on the location, we get a Google 3D map and plug-in our design to better understand the contextual fit. We also do early-stage animations walking through our SketchUp model to show our client what it feels like as you come close to the building and as you enter it. The walk-through feature also helps us to capture and demonstrate the quality of the major spaces.

An early-stage walk-through animation of the Integrated Design Building created in SketchUp.

When the client asks for design changes late in the design development stage, we will test and iterate in SketchUp before transferring it to the construction documents created in Revit. We also do focused studies of specific aspects of our design within SketchUp before consolidating it into the final drawings. The sketchy-edge style is really useful when the concept is still being refined but further along in the design process, we use SketchUp rendering extensions (such as V-Ray) to create more photorealistic images (with some post-processing in Photoshop).

How did the project address the issue of sustainability?

Selecting a timber structure meant we were using a sustainably harvested renewable material with very low embodied energy and carbon. The prefabricated nature of the timber structure also reduces on-site labor-intensive processes and will help accelerate the build process. If other clients and practitioners across the world choose to design more mass timber structures instead of concrete or steel, the industry could have a big impact on global carbon emissions.

Beyond the material specification, our limited budget meant that we could not rely on expensive bolt-on renewable strategies at the end of the design process. We like to consider the building’s performance from the very start to reduce the energy it consumes. We ruled out a LEED Platinum rating and renewable energy sources as they were beyond our budget, but we linked into the campus’ existing chiller system which is relatively efficient. We also planned spaces so that mechanical heating and cooling services could be sized and distributed efficiently.

By collaborating closely with all the project specialists, we were able to make a lot of smart decisions and we’re expecting a LEED Gold rating on completion.

Collaboration seems to be a big theme that runs through the project -- from interpreting the brief to the design process and post-completion.

Collaboration is very important to our practice and it was certainly crucial for this project’s success. There was very close collaboration between ourselves and the client, represented by the three different UMass department heads. We put a lot of thought into the spatial planning of the building to ensure that chance encounters between students and faculty across departments were maximized. We hope that the design will create multiple opportunities to interact, cross-pollinate ideas, and foster multidisciplinary collaboration.

rendering of the courtyard roof garden

A rendering of the courtyard roof garden populated with multiple regional green roof plantings.

We also worked very closely with our sustainability consultant Atelier Ten, and our MEP engineer, BVH Integrated Services, from the beginning of the project. Together, we tackled the massing, orientation and facade design to ensure that we ended up with an energy-efficient building. We didn’t want the design to create problems and then have to throw money at it to fix it, so we made sure sustainability, context, and program were integrated from the beginning. For instance, we worked closely with them on the massing, orientation and facade design to ensure we didn’t have too much glazing where it wasn’t needed. That way we were able to avoid glare and bad heat gains and still capture key views across the campus.

diagram of overall sustainable building and site strategies

A diagram of overall sustainable building and site strategies. Courtesy of Atelier Ten.

Our construction method is not common in the Boston Area of the United States. We collaborated intensely with Equilibrium Consulting based out of Vancouver, Canada, who are experts in timber structures. We had to think very carefully about how the structure was articulated because unlike concrete or steel, the timber would be on display. We had to consider the thickness of columns, orientation, and joints, particularly within the commons space. We went back and forth with Equilibrium to synchronize the efficiency and aesthetics of the structure. It was the most time I’ve spent collaborating with a structural engineer in my twenty plus years of practice and it was a very rewarding design process.

We were really inspired by LWA’s collaborative approach to this project and are looking forward to seeing the completed Integrated Design Building. We particularly love their use of the walk-through feature to help their clients better experience the spaces within their designs. To learn more about Leer Weinzapfel Associates, visit their website at

About the Author

Sumele contributes architecture and performance-focused content to the SketchUp blogs. When she's not writing or practicing architecture, she can be found singing, cooking up a storm, or with her head stuck in a book.

Profile Photo of Sumele Adelana