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Imported Wood at Play

Imported Wood at Play

As people become more attuned to the practical and aesthetic advantages offered by imported and exotic wood species, they find themselves experiencing it in more and more physical spaces and emotional spaces throughout the day.

There’s a new hot spot just south of the art museum, Pier Wisconsin, with an amphitheater overlooking the lake and what seems like miles of decking and piers on which to stroll and watch the changing light of a summer sunset. What a great way to unwind after an intense but successful day at the office.

What do you do when you’ve got a chance to make a design statement within swimming distance of one of the country’s great new architectural landmarks – the Milwaukee Art Museum on Lake Michigan? The project – Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin – is dedicated to the maritime history of the Great Lakes and financed largely by philanthropist Michael Cudahy. The open design competition was won by HGA Architects and Engineers of Milwaukee.

“We decided first to make the building white, to bring to mind clouds and sailboat sails,” says Jim Shields, AIA. “The project called for extensive decking and a pier on the waterfront. There is also a 250-seat amphitheater right in front of the spot where the schooner S/V Dennis Sullivan, Milwaukee’s own tall ship, will be docked between voyages. There are also plans to use it for outdoor musical events.”

The project actually consists of three main elements. A rectangular building houses the educational classrooms and several educational exhibits. A second three story round building houses saltwater and freshwater aquariums, a full-size replica of a Great Lakes schooner, and a special events venue called the Pilot House. The third element is the pier and deck, which border the complex on the south and east, an amphitheater, and plenty of free space for casual boaters to dock and for people to fish.

A main goal for the project was to make every element as sustainable and green-friendly as possible, particularly the decking. Shields explains that while many materials were considered, ipé was selected because it best met the list of requirements. “I had experience not only with ipé but with other imported hardwoods like jarrah, iroko, and kwila (also known as merbau). I have always been impressed with not only their extreme beauty but also their long-term stability. Durability is really the linchpin of sustainability, and if you can use something for a project that lasts for a very long time, there’s a lot of value in that. Treated pine was considered, but its inherent problems with cupping are a very serious problem for a public area frequented by children and disabled people. Cedar was also mentioned, but I’ve had bad experiences with that species succumbing to insect infestations.

Ipé used both outside and in the corridor of the main building evokes the teak decking of sailing ships and the strong maritime history of the Great Lakes region.

“In the end, ipé topped our list because of its availability, and because we could get competitive bids from several suppliers between here and Chicago. “The co-chairs of the project, Mike Cudahy and Frank Steves, were both very enthusiastic from the get-go, and during the project, Frank built an ipé deck at his home. His enthusiasm increased even more after that.” There was a moment early on when someone proposed synthetic decking as a better, cheaper alternative, so Shields embarked on a fact-finding journey. “I spent a day driving around to several lumberyards and found that synthetic decking material was actually substantially more expensive and frankly did not look as nice. Ipé was the most practical and most beautiful choice.

“There are two floating docks on the project, one that’s 450’ long for transient boaters and another right near where the Dennis Sullivan docks for a future fleet of small historic boats. They’re made of the same ipé, the only difference being that the boards were scored with saws for foot traction.” Ipé was also used in a long corridor along the south wall of the rectangular building. “That’s really the main concourse, with big operable glass doors that expose the interior in good weather,” says Shields. “Mike Cudahy wanted to see some use of the ipé decking inside as well, and this was the perfect place for it. “It did present a challenge. Radiant hotwater heating was to be installed below that floor, so access for maintenance was important. Milwaukee-based Cecco Trading helped us engineer a three-foot-square prefabricated module out of two-inch-square pieces of ipé. They were brought out on palettes and screwed down.

“The panelized floating floor system eliminated their worries about shrinkage over the heating systems,” explains A.J. Bumby of Cecco Trading. “The biggest question we hear on maritime projects like this is “How durable are the materials?” “How long will they last?” It’s easy to point to 40 years of use in certain projects such as the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which was done in the early 1970s.” “The ipé goes in very warm and weathers to a beautiful silver-gray,” says Shields. “For the interior, we treated the ipé to keep its warmer, just-installed color and bring a very human warmth to the lightness of the building and the skyline. It was also a great choice because it resonates perfectly with the maritime history of the region.”

Where to Buy Imported Wood: Search IWPA's Directory for wood suppliers, species, products or service providers.

Wood Species Library: Technical data sheets on domestic, imported, and lesser-known wood species from the U.S. Forest Products Lab.

Copyright© 2006 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North America.

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