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Bicentennial Hall at Middlebury College

Bicentennial HallFrom the moment you enter Middlebury College's Bicentennial Hall, you are surrounded by warmth and beauty seemingly incongruous with a state-of-the-art research facility, a sense of intimacy and community that could easily have been lost in the vastness of the building's Great Hall, in its many academic wings, in its 52 research laboratories, in the pure enormity of a 220,000-square foot building.

The inviting character of this place is no accident. It is the result of careful planning and deliberate choices on the part of everyone involved in the building's creation, at every step of the planning and construction process. The making of Bicentennial Hall required risk-filled, collaborative vision, and in the creation of its wood-lined interior-the focus of this story-several creative, far-reaching visions converged.

You can read about VFF's involvement in the Bicentennial Hall project below, and can download a PDF of the building's design and construction history here.






Educating wood buyers is a key part of VFF's work. When the Tai Soo Kim architectural firm specified clear cherry for Middlebury College's LaForce Hall, VFF encouraged them to look at what local forests could ecologically provide. VFF cut a cherry log into 3/8" flitches to show how grain patterns change from inide to outside. So impressed were the architects with the beauty and character of the changing grains that they altered their specifications to highlight these wood characteristics.


Payette Associates: Visionary Architecture

When Payette Associates originally designed Bicentennial Hall, they envisioned the entire interior clad in clear-grained red oak. Panels and rails, trim and wainscoting of Grade I red oak. And why not? Few woods surpass red oak in warmth and beauty, as a glance around the Great Hall attests. Had the College gone the traditional route of using uncertified wood, the Hall's interior would likely bear red oak throughout.

But the College's commitment to using green-certified wood led the architects into uncharted territory and challenged their assumptions and understandings about wood. When the contractors put out a request for bids to provide 125,000 board feet of clear-grained, sustainably-grown red oak, they came up empty. Not a single bid was submitted.

It's not hard to figure out why. It was a case of traditional aesthetics meeting the reality of Vermont's woodlands.

When Payette Associates architect Daniel Arons consulted Richard Miller to find why they were coming up empty on certified lumber, Miller suggested they take a walk in the woods. Walking through one of VFF's affiliated woodlands, they witnessed the northern hardwood forest in all its glory-a rich community dominated, not by mature red oaks, but by maples, birches, beeches, and a handful of other hardwood and softwood species of varying age, size, and quality. Arons then understood that the design was asking the impossible of the local, certified market. "[Miller] wanted us to take what the forest could offer. He wanted the market to reflect the forest. Not each project, but the market." But because Bicentennial Hall was the market at that time, and because the pool of readily available certified lumber was so small, the building's design needed to change to match what VFF lands had to offer.

Arons redesigned the woodwork specifications to reflect what he had seen. Instead of calling for red oak throughout, he planned instead to use seven different species of hardwoods common to the Middlebury area. While he continued to feature red oak in the Great Hall and the west wings, his revised plans specified beech, ash, sugar maple, red maple, cherry, and birch-one species for each of the academic departments in the Hall's north and south wings.

Moreover, he changed the specifications for all the hardwood species from AWI (American Woodwork Institute) Grade I to Grade III. This change allowed for the kind of character markings that the wood of younger, smaller diameter trees often bears-variations in wood color, stains, and knots. Arons' new specifications allowed for knots smaller than 3/8", as long as they were more than 1/2" from the edge of any millwork.

Three Visions Converge

Brynn was still waiting on formal SmartWood certification for the 31 VFF-affiliated parcels when he received a call from Richard Miller, asking if he'd be interested in taking part in the Bicentennial Hall project. Brynn was floored by the offer. "You want 125,000 board feet of locally certified lumber?" Brynn asked Miller incredulously. "I told him we'd do it, but that I wasn't exactly sure how." Not only did Miller want 125,000 board feet of hardwood, he also needed them in rapid order. Fortunately, two VFF-affiliated parcels had, at that time, timber sales planned and nearly set to go. Shelburne Farms' 400-acre forest in Shelburne, Vermont, contributed roughly 20,000 board feet of red oak, sugar and red maple, basswood, beech, and black birch to the project. Jake and Holly Callery's 1750-acre parcel high in the Green Mountains and straddling the townships of Beul's Gore, Fayston, and Starksboro added another 42,000 board feet of black cherry, sugar maple, beech, white ash, yellow birch, and red maple.

Brynn quickly queried other VFF landowners and consulting foresters to see if any were ready to take part in the project. Two more woodland owners signed on. Karen and Ron McEachen had, in 1994, completed timber stand improvement work on roughly one-third of their 36-acre woodland in Bristol, Vermont. At the time, they had identified, but not removed three prime red oak trees, each at least two feet in diameter, to cut when the right project came along. Bicentennial Hall was that project. Their three oaks provided 1360 board feet of lumber.


VFF Management practices minimize impact on human activities, but don't eliminate them. At Ron and Karen McEachen's woodlot in Bristol, Vermont, immediately after a timber harvest, limbs from the tree harvest asre scattered on the forest floor to return nutrients to the soil.


Another small Bristol woodland, just down the road from the McEachen's, provided the remainder of VFF's lumber. The 65-acre parcel, owned by Emil Cote and two partners, had been severely damaged by the ice storm in January of 1998. Scores of trees were stripped of their limbs, leaving standing shafts in the woods. "The ice storm was a gift," Brynn says, selecting trees, as it were, for the project. The resulting salvage added 30,000 board feet of red oak, black birch, red and sugar maple, basswood, beech, and white ash to the project.

On June 29, just 5 days after receiving formal SmartWood certification, harvesting for Bicentennial Hall began, starting with the arduous process of clearing ice storm debris from logging trails. After another week of rain delays, the first logs were cut on July 6, and the first truckload shipped for milling July 13. Though VFF could not meet Miller's optimistic deadline of having all logs cut and shipped by the end of July, most of the trees were cut that summer, and the final logs shipped out in early fall.

Miller hoped that VFF could provide all the wood for Bicentennial Hall, but the composition of the forests on VFF's affiliated woodlands would not allow this. "VFF was short on red oak and [black] cherry," says Brynn. "These are species that are limited on the 31 properties." Even so, VFF -affiliated lands, all within 33 miles of Middlebury, provided 70% of the project's lumber, some 93,000 board feet of mixed hardwoods. The rest came from green-certified forests in southern Vermont, Maine, and Pennsylvania.

Willing Risk-takers

It's one thing to talk the talk of environmental excellence, and quite another to walk the walk. When Middlebury College committed to using ecologically grown, local wood for the $47 million Bicentennial Hall, which was to be the centerpiece of the College's bicentennial celebration in the year 2000, they committed to a whole lot of risk-taking and flexibility. First they took the aesthetic risk of altering the building's design to accommodate what local, ecologically managed forests could provide. Then they placed their faith in VFF-at that time an unproven, fledgling organization-for a critical, highly visible portion of the building's materials.


Bob Growney of Shoreham, Vermont, saws hardwood with his portable sawmill.


VFF presented the College with requirements that further tested their flexibility and resolve. Firstly, the College had to buy all the logs VFF offered of a given species. If they wanted the Callery's black cherry logs, for example, they couldn't take only the clear, large-diameter logs. They had to buy all the logs, of all diameters and qualities, so that landowners wouldn't be left with only lesser quality logs. This required Middlebury to go about buying their wood by means radically different than conventional methods. When you want wood for a flooring project, say, you go to the lumber yard, where the wood has been sorted into piles according to its architectural grade. You look over the wood and select the grade you like at the price you can afford, so you can be reasonably sure, when the yard delivers the wood to your door, of what you're getting and how much you'll be paying for it. Despite the lack of these assurances, the College agreed to take what VFF offered.

Secondly, VFF asked Middlebury College to buy all parts of the log, with their varying grades of lumber. Some would be Grade I, some Grades II and III. Some would be unusable. So the College had to buy more wood than they would have if purchasing from a conventional, uncertified source, in order to make up for wastage of unusable wood. Again, the College agreed.

Because the process of building on such a large scale with certified wood was wholly untried in Vermont, Middlebury accepted financial risks as well. Without a certified infrastructure for processing the wood-sawing, kiln drying, slicing and assembling veneer-in place or readily available in Vermont, the wood had to be shipped out-of-state for processing. In the end, this fairly cumbersome process added 13% to the total woodwork cost, a substantial increase, but a price that bought the College not only wood that was beautiful, local, and ecologically grown, but also the pride of contributing to the local community, both human and ecological, and setting a national standard for academic building construction. Click here for a List of Project Participants.


Lessons for the Future

Bicentennial Hall was a proving ground for both Middlebury College and for VFF, an unprecedented experience in which, by taking risks and dealing with unanticipated road blocks, each learned how to navigate the little-traveled path of certified lumber production and utilization.

The College emerged from the experience of building with certified lumber with every intention of doing it again. Indeed, they have already begun working with VFF on their next building project, La Forse Hall. In 2000, the year they dedicated Bicentennial Hall, the College enrolled 357 acres of its more than 4,100 acres of forestlands in VFF, with plans to enroll more in the future.

Many of the stumbling blocks VFF and Middlebury College encountered through the Bicentennial Hall project stemmed from the newness of timber certification in the region. No local mills were set up to handle certified wood, lacking facilities or practices to keep certified logs and lumber separate from non-certified. Thus, little milling for Bicentennial Hall occurred locally. Likewise, veneer was milled and assembled out-of-state.

By encouraging local, certified sites for milling and processing, VFF is working to mitigate this problem. Since the Bicentennial Hall project, VFF has worked with two portable sawmill operators-Bob Growney of Bridport and Stephen Taylor of Lincoln-to mill VFF lumber on-site. With grant funds from the Ford Foundation, VFF and its partners, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, have developed a "chain of custody" tool kit which will allow local sawmills, wood drying kilns, and mill workers to produce and sell VFF-certified forest products. As its pool of certified landowners grows, VFF hopes to better supply the needs of its customers. Already its land base has grown to 5272 acres, with 34 forest parcels now VFF-affiliated.