U of I’s new arena features mass timber for innovative, sustainable design

Our built environment need not conflict with the natural world, writes guest columnist Dennis Becker.

University of Idaho ICCU arena
Idaho Central Credit Union Arena is scheduled to be completed this fall at the University of Idaho in Moscow. The 62,000-square-foot arena is being built using mass timber from the university’s own research forest and sustainably managed forests across Idaho and the surrounding region. It will serve as a living laboratory for architects, builders and the general public to learn about the benefits of using sustainably sourced wood fiber in commercial construction. (Courtesy of the University of Idaho Photographic Services)

I grew up on the family farm in Kansas where, walking the property’s fence line as a boy with my dog, I began to appreciate the beauty of our natural world.

It’s been a long journey from that farm in Kansas to the dean’s office of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho.

And it’s been immensely satisfying to help realize, along with a team of talented architects, engineers and sustainability leaders, the construction of the U of I’s breathtaking new arena that will be completed this fall.

The Idaho Central Credit Union Arena highlights how our built environment need not conflict with the natural world. We can build sustainably. And given buildings represent 39 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the United Nations Environment Program, it’s more essential than ever that we build sustainably.

This innovative 62,000-square-foot arena, built using mass timber from the university’s own research forest and sustainably managed forests across Idaho and the surrounding region, can help us do just that. The arena is a proving ground for the incredibly innovative, technological leaps we’ve made building with wood.

Mass timber, a type of engineered wood, provides a range of important environmental, social and economic benefits. Those include requiring less energy to produce than concrete or steel, storing carbon to mitigate climate change, supporting local job growth and providing a stunning venue for events and sports in our community.

The glulam beams, ceiling panels and many of the other wood products used in construction of the arena were sourced from sustainably managed forests certified to Sustainable Forestry Initiative standards. SFI-certified wood is a renewable, sustainable resource. And the SFI label is an assurance that forest products are derived from well-managed forests that can help mitigate the impacts of climate change, as well as preserve biological habitat, soil and water quality.

We received more than $35 million of the $51 million arena cost from private funds, including Idaho’s forest products industry with member organizations certified to SFI standards. From the sustainably managed timber harvested by Bennett Lumber, Idaho Forest Group and PotlatchDeltic and processed into lamstock and roof panels, the glulam beams manufacturing by Boise Cascade and QB Corp, the dark-stained siding manufactured by Tri Pro Cedar Products and the CNC milling and assembly by StructureCraft, the sector came together to showcase the arena as a spectacular example of wood design.

Since the first wood beam was set in May 2020, arena construction has been a valuable learning opportunity for the university’s students in architecture, engineering and natural resource science.

Through the arena’s construction, students can learn about the entire forest products supply chain from nursery management to sustainable forest management and from product marketing to manufacture and design. U of I is unique in that it is one of only two universities in the country with a commercial research nursery. To envision a finished product like glulam beams from a seedling is an unparalleled learning experience.

This arena also showcases the aesthetic beauty, environmental sustainability and cutting-edge design that can be achieved by building with wood. In addition to teaching future professionals, the arena will serve as a living laboratory for architects, builders and the general public to learn about the benefits of using sustainably sourced wood fiber in commercial construction.

While the arena is a pioneering design, it employs standardized engineering that can be replicated in all manner of commercial and industrial applications. To be sure, our aim was to popularize and encourage building with mass timber. To that end, Idaho Gov. Brad Little signed H143 this spring, directing the state building code board to include the 2021 mass timber building code provisions by January 2022.

Building more commercial buildings with mass timber — and educating architects, engineers and builders about the many benefits of building with wood — will mean a healthier, more sustainably built environment.

Having learned all those years ago to appreciate the wonder of the natural world, it’s all the more fulfilling to be working on a project like this that will help protect it.

With the support of Idaho’s forest products sector, we’re building a cutting-edge arena using sustainable mass timber, creating a model for others to follow and an important laboratory for learning and civic activity for decades to come.