Green Oak Research Initiative

Students took a fresh look at an underutilized part of oak and saw a sustainable way to use it in construction.

The Green Oak Research Initiative proposed ways to develop contemporary green (un-dried) oak construction techniques for the U.S. building market. The initiative allowed currently underutilized heart-centers of oak logs to be used as an extremely low energy, carbon friendly, beautiful and high value wood product for structural members in sustainable buildings.

Conducted from 2012-2017 through funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, students learned a more sustainable way of constructing residential and small commercial buildings and how to research and test construction methods.

Our research also impacted owner-operated sawmills, who make up the majority of sawmills in the U.S. hardwood industry. Creating value-added solutions for these previously underutilized byproducts means sawmills can receive more revenue with no change to their operations.

The Green Oak Research Initiative involved UT students and faculty from the School of Architecture and College of Engineering and a co-investigator from UT Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries. Partners were the U.S. EPA and the UT Center for Renewable Carbon.

There is very little contemporary architectural or engineering knowledge in the U.S. about using green oak in building design and about this type of construction in building codes.

Ted Shelton, Associate Professor of Architecture

The Appalachian hardwood region is one of the most productive forests in the world, annually adding about twice the volume of timber to its reserve as is harvested, despite supporting a robust industry of diverse, high-value hardwood products such as flooring, trim and cabinetry. The heart-centers of hardwood logs, however, are an exception to the efficient use of this resource. Because many of the heart-centers of hardwood logs have defects that limit their usefulness for traditional dry lumber products, this portion of the log is routinely sold green (un-dried) as “cants” (types of logs) used to manufacture shipping pallets, an extremely low-grade use for such an otherwise highly desirable resource.

In 2014, UT students in the Green Oak Research Initiative, led by Professor Ted Shelton, traveled to Washington, DC, where they won the second phase of the EPA’s P3: People, Prosperity, and the Planet Student Design Competition for Sustainability, after previously winning a Phase 1 grant of $15,000 to develop their idea. In Phase 2, their project received $90,000 in grant funding to apply their designs to real-world applications and implement in the marketplace.

During the competition, university projects from across the country were exhibited as part of the National Sustainable Design Expo. Seven winners were selected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

At the Expo, 23 students and faculty of the Green Oak initiative constructed and demonstrated a full-scale building prototype using the wood. They showed the mechanical testing and architectural construction documents that validate its viability as a sound building material.