John W. Olver Design Building, UMass Amherst

Architecture firm: Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Owner: University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Location: Amherst, Massachusetts

Category: Excellence

Project site: Previously developed

Building program type(s): Education - college/university (campus-level)

The Olver Design Building, a new collaborative facility at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, unites three design departments from different schools under one roof. In doing so, the building fosters new synergy across the disciplines of architecture, building and construction technology, and landscape architecture on the university’s flagship western Massachusetts campus.

Drawing inspiration from various agrarian patterns found throughout the state, the new building links the more formal, large-scale Haigis Mall, built in 1975, to the informal and intimate space of the historic campus. From its sloping site, the building acts as a new pathway through the campus as its design evokes the school’s roots as a land-grant college where local pastures and fields once served as its labs and working classrooms.

The LEED Gold–certified building was constructed with a cutting-edge composite cross-laminated timber system, taking its cues from the building construction technology department’s research on mass timber. It is the largest such building to be built in the United States, demonstrating the university’s commitment to sustainability and innovation. The building’s envelope functions as a protective weather jacket that shields its wood structure. A durable rain screen enclosure composed of copper anodized aluminum panels and vertical windows suggests the patterns of historic tobacco barns and patterns of the region's forests.

“This first-of-its-kind building combines architecture, construction, and building systems to serve as a learning element for students. While programmatically straightforward, the project is unique and well-executed.” - Jury comment

Inside the building, the team shaped an ascending band of makerspaces, studios, faculty offices, and classrooms around a sky-lit commons to form a central space for collaboration. The commons, intended for gathering and presentations, features a stepped-seating area and a ceremonial cross-laminated timber stair that spans two stories. Elsewhere, exposed timber columns, ceiling slabs, and cross-bracing bolster the building’s warm and rustic atmosphere. The building’s mechanical systems are revealed within the labs and teaching spaces, allowing them to serve as teaching tools that enhance the learning environment for the university’s future architects, planners, and engineers.

As the building’s spiritual heart, the commons functions as a three-sided courtyard that spills out through the building’s cafe and entry to invite the rest of the campus in. A roof terrace perched above the commons serves as its outdoor counterpart, providing an open-air classroom for the landscape architecture program. It is reminiscent of an alpine garden featuring wild-harvested sod, bare-root plants, and young evergreens.

Lessons learned throughout the design and construction process have been shared widely by the design team and the university. The team’s work has been published nearly 30 times, shared at national and international conferences, and featured in the “Timber City” exhibition at the National Building Museum. In 2017 the Wall Street Journal noted it has helped “lay the foundations for the smart use of mass timber in ways that will soon enrich, and transform, our environment.”

Additional information

Project attributes

Year of substantial project completion: 2017

Gross conditioned floor area: 87,573 sq ft

Project team

Engineer: BVH Integrated Services

Engineer: Nitsch Engineering - WBE

Engineer - Structural: Equilibrium Consulting

Engineer - Structural Engineer of Record: SGH

General Contractor: Suffolk

Interior Design: Leers Weinzapfel Associates

Landscape Architect: STIMSON

Sustainability and Lighting Consultant: Atelier Ten



Diego Barrera, AIA (Chair), Stantec, Plano, Texas

Richey Madison, AIA, SmithGroup, Los Angeles

Xuemei Zhu, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Pam Loeffelman, FAIA, DLR Group, Estes Park, Colo.

Oswaldo Rivera-Ortiz, Assoc. AIA, Dallas Independent School District, Dallas

Image credits

North Pleasant Street entrance

Albert Vecerka/ESTO

The commons

Albert Vecerka / ESTO

architecture studio

Albert Vecerka / ESTO

building entrance


rooftop courtyard