An architecture of the imagination: In Mastheads studios, new building material shapes creative environment

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PITTSFIELD — The American Renaissance writers were mid-19th century visionaries whose work has endured long after their deaths. Now a project inspired by their work in the city has brought an innovative construction technology here.

Beginning this summer, The Mastheads will pair five writers from across the country with the new structures meant to serve as creative hubs.

Work began, and wrapped up, this week on the creation of the spaces using cross-laminated timber, a wood product that can be used as an alternative to more traditional construction materials such as lumber, concrete, masonry and steel.

Used mostly in Europe, Australia and Canada, it is made from multiple layers of low-grade lumber, stacked perpendicular to each other and glued.

Cross-laminated timber caught the attention of local architects Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson who designed and conceived The Mastheads. Kelly said they found the timber aesthetically pleasing and were also attracted to its durability and environmental sustainability.

"It's an exciting new product," Kelly said. "That got us really excited to show that Pittsfield is on the cusp of this emerging technology."

State leaders have been talking about the future of cross-laminated timber in Western Massachusetts.

Last month, state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash said the state wants to hear from mill owners interested in cross-laminated timber, also known as CLT.

"We believe that such a process will create an opportunity for jobs in rural parts of Massachusetts," Ash said. "The opportunity to create a new marketplace for an emerging building material is a very exciting one for Gov. Baker and myself."

Without ready access to the material locally, the timber was ordered and transported from Quebec, Canada — the nearest place the timber can be sourced from, Kelly said.

Each of the 8-by-8-foot structures was delivered in pieces, cut precisely to the measurements Kelly and Parkinson designed.

"It was a very, very clean and precise process," Kelly said.

While it would have been less expensive to use stick-built construction, Kelly said several aspects of the timber met the needs of their project.

"We decided to stick with the CLT because we really liked the fact that there is a single plane," she said. "It seemed like a very elegant way to produce a small space; rather than with many, many, many small pieces."

The timber's durability was also a factor. The studios for The Mastheads, built on custom-made trailers, will be moved at least twice each year.

"They are a lot sturdier and that makes mobility easier," Kelly said.

With the structures assembled, Kelly said upcoming work will focus on details such as installing doors, window trim and finishing.

Once that is set, the spaces will be ready for their temporary occupants, expected to arrive in time for the project's July start.

The studios are architectural interpretations of the original spaces used by authors Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., all of whom wrote in or took inspiration from Pittsfield.

For example, the Longfellow studio's elongated windows reference the stair tower of Elm Knoll, the house in Pittsfield where he wrote "The Old Clock in the Stair."

The Masthead organizers recently announced the writers selected to kick-off its inaugural season.

Starting July 1 the writers, poets Justin Boening and Greg Allendorf, as well as novelists Mariam Rahmani, Maria Pinto, and John Babbott, will each be paired with one of the newly built studios.

Sarah Trudgeon, The Mastheads director of education, said the five writers, whom she described as "up and coming," were selected from a pool of about 100 applicants.

"We are really, really excited to meet them and to welcome them to Pittsfield," she said.

Each of the writers submitted project descriptions as part of their application and will explore a variety of topics.

Boening plans to continue work on his second collection of poems, tentatively titled "National Anathema."

"The poems I've included in the new manuscript up to this point have been more corrosive, badly behaved, sometimes self-erasing," he wrote. "That said, I still feel I'm getting to know this new villain and would no doubt benefit greatly from the month of focus on his musics."

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.


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