"A Living Lab"

By Tom Furne, Sr. Project Manager, HDR

The typical purpose of a building is to provide shelter for the personal or commercial activities going on inside. For the U.S. Forest Service's new Forest Products Laboratory, this means consolidating and co-locating research efforts in four key areas. But this unique facility adds another purpose that's so simple it's genius. The building itself functions as a real-world laboratory, featuring interchangeable exterior panels of new products undergoing testing for exposure to outdoor elements.

Located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the 87,000-square-foot facility, designed by HDR, continues a 100-year tradition of innovative research into all components of wood and paper fiber. The lab is known as the Centennial Research Facility to honor the 100th anniversary of the original lab, which opened in June 1910.

Sustainable Features

The lab's multiple components were previously housed in antiquated facilities, including a historic art deco stone structure that was preserved to house administrative functions. Exterior elements of the new facility mimic the original wood fin accents of the historic building, but are made of composite wood and plastic members that resulted from Forest Product Laboratory research.

Additional sustainable construction elements include:

  • Building on an existing parking lot to save greenspace;
  • A cool roof to reduce the heat island effect;
  • A detention pond for site rainwater;
  • Low flow water fixtures and motion sensor lights;
  • Interior finish materials with a high recycled content, and low volatile-organic-content paint and adhesives;
  • At least 20 percent of building materials manufactured within 500 miles of the project; and
  • 75 percent of non-hazardous construction debris was recycled.

An Innovative Interior

The lab consolidates laboratories for four major research areas: wood preservation, durability, engineering mechanics and composite sciences. The facility had to be designed to accommodate an immense variety of strict environmental controls, load bearing requirements and specialized testing capabilities. Each space had its own functional and technical requirements, and  was engineered to accommodate advanced technologies such as nanotechnology to evaluate use of woody biomass in sustainable energy production.

The composites laboratory is the largest lab. Because it has instrumentation that can be sensitive to electromagnetic interferences from outside sources such as the nearby university power plant, facility design incorporated features and placement to minimize potential interferences. The lab is adjacent to the engineering mechanics lab, to facilitate interaction.

The engineering mechanics laboratory features a reinforced floor and moveable reaction wall to accommodate testing of full-scale structures. Two bridge cranes supported by glued-laminated timber (glulam) beams (a material tested at the facility) and columns can support up to 20 tons. The space allows semi-trailers to offload products for testing. For example, aging wooden bridge components are sent to the lab and tested for strength capacity, helping determine the remaining lifespan of critical rural infrastructure.

The wood preservation laboratory is divided between two levels and features pressurized chambers where wood products can be soaked in a variety of chemical preservatives to develop pressure-treated wood products. The space incorporates microbiology, biochemistry and chemistry bench labs, with incubation rooms, glass wash, walk-in refrigerators and freezers. 

The durability lab is the facility's smallest. It is housed on the lower floor to accommodate required environmental controls including a test chamber, system prep room and stating/storage room. The test chamber includes a specially designed environmentally controlled chamber to test full-size wall and roof sections using simulated rain, wind, sun and pressure conditions. A rail system embedded in the floor allows movement of test samples between areas.

The Forest Products Laboratory was designed to showcase how engineering touches lives every day, and to serve as a "billboard" for the innovative research performed by its scientists. Three of the four laboratories are located in high-bay spaces (up to 28 feet) where activities can be viewed from both inside and outside the building.

An Inventive Exterior

Designing the building to function as a lab didn't stop at the interior.  Engineering and architectural design came together to create an exterior that supports real-world exposure to environmental conditions for wood products undergoing testing.

Exterior precast concrete panels on the exterior walls support interchangeable wood and composite products developed at the laboratory, which are mounted as structural supports, sheathing and building accents. Test components can also be bolted onto aluminum frames and periodically replaced with new products to support exterior weathering and durability tests. The precast concrete panels are formed with heavily distressed "barn board" forms that express the utilitarian uses of wood in construction while showcasing its beauty. 

Designing the building exterior to function as a "living lab" shows how engineering design can go beyond the expected. In addition to allowing test products to be swapped out based on the needs of scientific inquiry, it also encourages public understanding of ongoing research. One example of product development research that benefits from this approach is the use of glulam, used in many residential and commercial applications including the lab itself. Glulam is a stress-rated engineered wood product made of wood laminations bonded together with waterproof adhesives. Research at the Forest Products Laboratory resulted in re-engineering of glulam beams, improving both their design value and product performance.

A National Resource

With 90 percent of residential housing in the United States built with wood frame construction, finding ways to increase the durability of wood and composite products impacts everyday life for many Americans. Finding ways to improve resistance of these products to fire, moisture and wind has direct impacts on economic and environmental sustainability. From its earliest research beginning in 1910 that reduced timber demand for railroad ties by 75 percent, and developed ways to increase the efficiency of lumber production through better timber cuts, the Forest Products Laboratory is poised to offer another century of essential research. The new facility will help it fulfill its mission of advancing healthy forests and forest-based economies through researching and promoting the efficient and sustainable use of wood. 


  • 2011 Merit Award, Engineering Excellence Awards, American Council of Engineering Companies/Nebraska Chapter

About the author: Tom Furne, P.E., LEED AP, is a senior project manager with HDR, based in the company's Omaha, Neb. office.