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The University of Arkansas in Fayettesville is planning to become the first U.S. campus to make use of cross-laminated timber (CLT), a building material comprised of large panels of wood and glue-laminated beams, for a 202,000 square foot campus dormitory project that will house 710 students.

According to The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the alternative to steel framing and concrete is expected to add roughly $1.3 million in construction costs to the estimated $79 million project, with UA officials describing it as a way to possibly boost the state's timber industry should the method – hailed as having benefits that include increased environmental sustainability – catch on widely.

However in this case, no Arkansas wood will be used in the main structural components, with the sourcing coming from a European supplier.

Elizabeth Stokes, a Mississippi State University assistant professor in the university’s sustainable bio-products department, said the UA housing project amounts to “basically real-time investigative science.”

“Student housing is not the place to demo a questionably-safe building material,” said Kevin Lawlor, a spokesperson for Build with Strength, a coalition of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association comprised of fire safety professionals, engineers, architects and industry experts. “Gambling the safety and well-being of students and their belongings in exchange for the benefit of the local timber industry cannot be justified.”

The safety and fire resistance of CLT, as compared to concrete and steel as a building material, is uncertain as insufficient testing has produced inconclusive results.

“This is a missed opportunity to make use of non-combustible and resilient concrete,” continued Lawlor. “In a situation where the use of concrete and steel would have been a more cost effective alternative, the decision should have been a no-brainer.”

Jon Narva, Director of External Relations for the National Association of State Fire Marshals, recently said in a video, “Within the United States, cross-laminated timber is really a new material, a new process. We still don’t know a lot about it, we’re trying to understand better how to protect the public with those buildings frankly coming into being. It’s certainly a fair statement to say we understand concrete and what it’s going to do under fire conditions better than we do cross-laminated timber.”