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A+D: All Aboard for Design Build

Photos and video: New train observation platform and student design-build project opens to the public in Radford

The New River Train Observatory is an investment in the region’s rich railroad history and a testament to the design-build approach for architecture and design students. The project is also one of the first structures in the United States to use hardwood cross-laminated timbers (CLT), a technology heralded by many in the industry as a more sustainable and affordable alternative to steel.

A platform for a train-viewing observation tower behind the Glencoe Mansion in Radford, Virginia, is one piece of a comprehensive tourism development plan undertaken by the city tourism department. A diverse team of collaborators and consultants including architects, sustainable biomaterial experts, structural and civil engineers, custom fabricators, and university students (among others) were involved in the project. School of Architecture + Design faculty members Kay Edge and Edward Becker led comprehensive project efforts, which first began in early 2018. Tom Hammet and Dan Hindman, faculty members in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, also played an important role.

The observatory provides a close-up, dramatic view of the Norfolk Southern rail line. Architecture students began the project in design studio, while faculty members Edge and Becker were responsible for design development, construction details, logistics, coordination of multiple consultants, material acquisition, and budget. The structure consists of a simple arrangement of a bridge connecting two volumes, or modules.

Nestled within the trees, the observatory offers pristine views of passing trains as well as the New River. At its highest point, the structure stands 28 feet above grade with the walkway at 18 feet high. The two modules, made of cross-laminated timber (CLT), are coated in a black pine tar in reference to the nearby railroad ties, both by sight and smell, and to help the structure blend into the forest. The module walls are perforated by small holes to reduce the structure’s mass, to mimic the forest’s dappled lighting effects, and to provide playful lines-of-sight for the viewer to the forest despite the user’s height.

In order to conform with the City of Radford’s client brief directive that the tower look both backwards and forward – relating to the city’s railroad history while also showcasing the city’s movement into the 21st century – the team selected an emerging timber technology, hardwood cross-laminated timber (CLT), as the primary construction material. Because CLT is not easily accessible in the region, particularly hardwood CLT, the team not only undertook the design of the observation tower itself, but also sourced locally grown yellow poplar and coordinated the material development and construction logistics of locally-pressed hardwood CLT panels. The team also had to establish material transport and fabrication logistics due the general lack of infrastructure for CLT in much of the Eastern United States.

Although considered a hardwood, yellow poplar isn’t quite hard enough in its raw form to be in demand as a building material. But with the CLT process, where the trees are cut into sections and bonded into large, thick pieces that look like solid wood, their strength is competitive with steel, but at just half the weight. The construction of CLT panels also uses less fossil fuels than steel production and produces fewer environmentally harmful byproducts. Upcycling these low-value Virginia hardwoods into high-value, high-performance building products is a significant benefit of CLT. Not only does selective harvesting of lumber improve Virginia forest health, but jobs are created for rural economies. The CLT modules for the train observatory were constructed off-site and lifted into place with a crane once site preparation had been completed.

The City of Radford celebrated the public opening of the platform with a ceremony on September 10, 2019. Radford mayor David Horton (pictured) was in attendance, along with additional city officials and representatives from the Radford Heritage Foundation. Deb Cooney, Radford’s director of tourism, said the observatory is just one phase of a larger plan to develop the Mary Draper Ingles Cultural Heritage Park adjacent to the museum.

Photos courtesy of Kay Edge.

Read more about the platform’s public opening in the Roanoke Times.

Learn more about CLT technology and its use in the platform via Radio IQ + WVTF. 

Want to support more student projects like this one? Consider a gift to the School of Architecture + Design annual fund.