Located within the Rice University campus, the Harris Gully Natural Area is a restored watershed that consists of several microhabitats — from prairie to open woodland to dense shrubland. Because of Harris Gully — and despite its location in the heart of Houston — Rice is one of the most biodiverse universities in the country, with the highest bird species list of any campus in North America. The Mass Timber Pavilion, an observation deck immersed within the landscape, represents the first step in a long-term plan to manage this delicate ecosystem.
The pavilion itself is an abstract object, conceived and sited in the picturesque tradition. Like the ruin of a small temple, it invites and accommodates nature around it. In its simplicity, indeterminacy, and openness, it insinuates a lightness of touch that should guide the stewardship of the natural area in the future.
Made of cross-laminated timber (CLT) sourced from Southern yellow pine, the pavilion is a carbon-negative structure and an essay on the possibilities of this sustainable construction technology. A didactic design, the building showcases the CLT panels in their purest form, like a giant piece of furniture that conveys the logic of its assembly. The way in which the material is presented underlines its structural versatility, featuring CLT performing as roof, pillar, and capital.
The project was designed during Professor Jesús Vassallo’s mass timber seminar at Rice University by a team that included graduate students Pouya Khadem and Lene Sollie in collaboration with structural engineer Tracy Huynh. Funding for the project was obtained through a federal grant from the U.S. Forest Service, with additional funds provided by generous gifts to the School of Natural Sciences and the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum.