Michael Green Architecture designs Net Zero ‘Catalyst Building’ in mass timber

Touted to be one of North America’s most sustainable structures, the Catalyst Building is projected to usher in a new era of more responsible building and construction in Spokane.

by Anmol Ahuja Published on : Oct 10, 2020

Located in Spokane’s new South Landing “eco district” called the HUB, which represents a shared model for energy usage and sustainability, the newly opened Catalyst Building will now house the Eastern Washington University’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CSTEM) from the University’s main Cheney Campus located nearly 16 miles away. The building will also be host to the college’s Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science, and Design programmes along with several other programmes from the Business, Public Health and MFA departments.

The Catalyst Building sitting adjacent to the new pedestrian bridge landing | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
The Catalyst Building sitting adjacent to the new pedestrian bridge landing Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

The Catalyst Building is an innovative collaboration between industry leaders Avista (real estate), McKinstry (Design-Building-Operation-Management), Katerra (construction), and the Eastern Washington University, and owes its principal design in mass timber to Michael Green Architecture (MGA), a Katerra design partner. It is the first building to be completed in the South Landing eco district as part of “the five smartest blocks in the world,” envisioned by Avista chairman, Scott Morris. The second building in the shared energy neighbourhood is the Scott Morris Centre for Energy Innovation, named after him, and together, the two buildings are intended to act as beacons and benchmarks for the upcoming smart buildings in the HUB.

  • Entrance porch of the Catalyst Building, EWU | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    Entrance porch of the Catalyst Building, EWU Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture
  • Entrance porch of the Catalyst Building, view from the building front | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    Entrance porch of the Catalyst Building, view from the building front Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

Speaking of his desire for the Catalyst Building to spark inspiration for cleaner, more responsible constructions in the region in the future, Michael Green, principal of MGA, says, “This project is really special for MGA because it brings together a lot of the thought and ambition we have around how we can start to change both the environmental performance and the affordability of buildings. It is the beginning of what we think will be the transformation of the construction industry, moving away from the more carbon intensive materials like concrete and steel, and towards mass timber as the best choice when making a carbon neutral building". MGA, through its other projects, has emerged at the forefront of producing environment friendly designs in mass timber in the North American region.

The Catalyst Building uses mass timber as its primary structural material in columns and slabs | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
The Catalyst Building uses mass timber as its primary structural material in columns and slabs Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

The 1,65,000 sqft institutional campus by MGA uses roughly 4,000 cubic meters of locally sourced mass timber and CLT (cross laminated timber) in its design and construction of both, its structural members as well as interior scheme. The CLT from mass timber to be utilised in the building was produced by Katerra itself in its local factory in response to a meticulous system of building devised by MGA. This was done to maximise building efficiency, minimise environmental impact and optimise construction methods, while bearing absolutely no loss on the desired aesthetics of the building.

  • The interiors of the Catalyst Building showcasing extensive usage of CLT in structure as well as aesthetic | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    The interiors of the Catalyst Building showcasing extensive usage of CLT in structure as well as aesthetic Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture
  • The interiors of the Catalyst Building in mass timber | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    The interiors of the Catalyst Building in mass timber Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

The application of this natural, renewable material has been further maximised apart from its mass timber gravity system to also be included in its load-resisting lateral system and exterior pre-fabricated panel cladding, some of the CLT panels from which have even been reused in the building as exit stair treads. In comparison to a similarly scaled building constructed with conventional methods and materials (steel and concrete), its simple usage of mass timber alone helps The Catalyst nearly completely offset the embodied carbon impact of steel and concrete construction. According to the stakeholders’ analysis, this roughly equated to 1,100 cars off the road for a year in energy terms, sequestering nearly 5,000 metric tons of carbon from the construction and operation of the building, essentially elevating it to be considered for zero carbon and net zero standards in the United States

  • The open floor plan of the Catalyst Building realised using long span ribbed wooden panels | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    The open floor plan of the Catalyst Building realised using long span ribbed wooden panels Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture
  • The ribs in the floor slabs allow for efficient accommodation of MEP services as well | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
    The ribs in the floor slabs allow for efficient accommodation of MEP services as well Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

Its extensive space programme including classrooms, common study areas, offices and an innovation lab, along with several other student amenities and facilities is realised through open, long span floor plates that make use of Katerra’s ribbed panel system in timber. Apart from facilitating flexibility for multi-functional uses, the ribs allow for efficient and integrated planning for the MEP services through the building, an essential aspect apart from structure that enables the building to achieve its sustainability targets.

The ‘rear’ side of the Catalyst Building towards the University district edge | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
The ‘rear’ side of the Catalyst Building towards the University district edge Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

The Catalyst’s integrated service planning in tandem with the South Landing smart eco neighbourhood it lies in, and the other building(s) in the same HUB, is where it achieves a remarkable degree of innovation. Each of the intended buildings in the HUB are designed to be “smart” in their operation and management using the latest technology, and the Catalyst sits seamlessly integrated within the local grid system, allowing for information exchange within the Building Management System and grid operation. To elucidate, through its sophisticated and interactive BMS, the Catalyst manages to minimise its energy impact on the power grid by actively managing its consumption and balance on site energy demand during peak load times, all the while ensuring maximum thermal comfort for its occupants. The shortfall is impressively balanced by on-site renewable energy generation using photovoltaic arrays on the building’s terrace, battery and thermal storage.

The rear entrance porch of the building at night | The Catalyst Building by Michael Green Architecture | STIRworld
The rear entrance porch of the building at night Image: Benjamin Benschneider, Courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

Other “passive-first” strategies employed in the building include bio-swales (channels for concentrating surface runoff and recharging groundwater) and water retention systems for low water use, envelope design utilising passive house standards, exhaust heat and grey water recovery and durable material application to achieve design life expectancy of 75 years. Furthermore, hundreds of sensors installed throughout the building track its ambient conditions, air quality, occupancy and other attributes in real-time. It’s essentially the buildings in the HUB and the grid “talking”, to and within each other, furthering the hypotheses of buildings being living, and now even sentient masses in their own right.

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