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Bicentennial Hall LaForce Hall
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Bicentennial Hall at Middlebury College

More than a matter of taste: Ecology and architecture

The Architectural Woodwork Institute (AWI) ranks wood quality using such criteria as color, grain pattern, and presence and size of knots. AWI ranking requires uniformity of color and grain pattern in Grade I wood, and allows more "flaws" and "characteristics" in the wood as the grade ranking increases.

But clear-grained, evenly colored wood comes predominantly from large-diameter trees, which have the most heartwood and the fewest knot-forming side branches. Removing only large-diameter trees from a forest community is called high-grading, a practice that has deprived large tracts of Vermont's forests of their largest, most vigorous members, leaving the smaller, weaker trees-those that lost the competition for space and sunlight-behind and undermining the vigor and health of the forest communities.

The aesthetics of character

There is no denying that clear-grained, Grade I lumber is structurally stronger than Grade II or III wood. But the wood needed for Bicentennial Hall, like most hardwood lumber, was not being used for structural, load-bearing purposes. Its job was to look beautiful. So an important part of Dan Aron's job in Bicentennial Hall was to convince the college trustees, officials, and building contractors that "character" was not a code word for "inferior." "The [wood] grade was changed, not dropped," Arons insists. He made his case convincingly. Once trustees and officials had a chance to see samples of the wood, the beauty of the wood's character was obvious—not just tolerable, but worth featuring. And wood of the finished Hall bears testament to that beauty, offering an unexpected, eye-pleasing streak of creamy tan through the burnt sienna of cherry wood, a splash of chocolate staining in honey-colored ash, a subtle palette of pastel variations in a wall of red maple.

Carpenters on the project, used to handling Grade I lumber, were initially taken aback by the variability in the lumber. But Mark McElroy, of Barr and Barr, general contractors for Bicentennial Hall, says that attitudes changed as carpenters got to know the wood. "By the end of the process, they realized that it takes a better eye, more creativity, and a higher level of craftsmanship to make the most of the wood, and they came away with a sense of pride in what they had done."

One of VFF's goals is to educate both architects, woodworkers, and consumers about the ecological implications of their aesthetic choices and to show them that the "lower" grades of wood are neither necessarily of lower quality nor of lesser beauty. Creating a market for the woods of smaller diameter, more highly-charactered wood will help make ecologically sound woodlot management financially viable.