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This refurbished union headquarters outside Providence, Rhode Island, embraces everything except old-school timber.

The new headquarters for the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters Local Union 330 stands right off of I-95 about six miles south of Providence, Rhode Island. Like many union halls, it doubles as a billboard for the services of its members — some 2,200 carpenters from Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Conspicuously absent on the building’s sleek facade: wood.

T.F. Green Airport plays a major role in the state’s economy, from attracting tourists to luring conferences, to giving Rhode Islanders or southeastern Bay Staters a chance to travel for work or pleasure without having to schlep to Boston. You’ll trade that convenience and comfort, though, for fewer nonstop routes compared to Logan. Though numbers are trending upwards, there’s still no consistent nonstop route west of Chicago, and, despite the word “International” in the name, there are no current international routes.

“When the general public thinks of a carpenter, they think of someone hammering a nail into a wood, building rafters and a house,” says Dennis Lassige, the union’s regional manager for southeast New England. “But in a commercial setting, there’s so much less wood being utilized.”

That doesn’t mean the building doesn’t showcase the skills of today’s carpenters: It’s wrapped in a variety of engineered materials that illustrate how the trade has changed in recent decades, evolving from working almost exclusively with age-old timber to a whole range of wood, metal, cement and stone composites.

“This isn’t just a big wood-clad building like a lot of people would think a carpenters union building would be,” says Paul Hauser, a principal at Vision 3 Architects. “We used modern design materials that carpenters are increasingly using.”

The Providence-based firm led the renovation of the union hall, a split-level built in the 1970s that houses offices and meeting space. The union liked its prime location next to the highway, but the building itself — full of period details like drop ceilings and dark paneling — had seen better days. “Hundreds of thousands of eyeballs see it everyday,” says Lassige, who’s been a member of the union for 23 years. “We wanted to upgrade it and use it as an advertisement for the wonderful building services we’re capable of.”

They considered just demolishing the building — and keeping the lot, because of its prime real estate next to the highway — but ultimately decided it could be transformed with a facelift. “Everything on the outside was stripped down, right down to its structural skeleton,” Hauser says.

Vision 3 made sure that a large share of work on the project went to carpenter union members themselves — even tasks that aren’t usually done by the craftsmen. About one-third of work on the building came from carpenter labor, a big portion compared to the 20% or less that’s typical for comparable projects. “It’s a pretty big number when you think about everything that goes into the building,” says Hauser, referring to the building’s masonry, mechanical, electrical and plumbing tasks. The project cost about $5.5 million in all.

To achieve that one-third threshold, the architecture firm had to be creative about where it could swap in carpentry for concrete. Even for the staircases and elevator shafts, which typically are built by masons, Vision 3 opted for metal stud framing and drywall, which carpenters are comfortable doing. “We were trying to be as conscientious as possible to maximize that carpenters union,” Hauser says.

Another big goal: maximizing light. Previously, the building’s interior had low-slung ceilings that limited the space. “It was a boxy, rigid building, and we created these angles to have a lot of fun with it inside,” says Hauser. The designers introduced a lot of glass to the interior; from almost every part of the building, visitors can see through from one side to the other.

The building’s primary facade uses a terracotta rain screen, which is particularly durable against New England winters. A vapor barrier between the siding and the building’s inner wall offers additional protection against moisture. A stone product forms the building’s base. All of it was installed by carpenters.

In the carpentry world, these exterior rain screen and envelope systems are largely replacing traditional brick and stone facades, according to Lassige. The cladding comes in a variety of colors and textures, from those that mimic traditional wood and stone to wild hues like “krispy green” and “galaxy blue.”

“They’re designed in such a way to really make a building pop,” Lassige says. “You see more and more buildings adopting some version of that.”

Beyond the aesthetic appeal, the new-era material has physical advantages, too. It’s often much more durable than wood, especially in the New England climate, where salt air and dramatic seasonal temperature changes create punishing conditions.

They might not look like it, but many of the new materials behave like traditional wood, Lassige says. And some things about a carpenter’s craft haven’t really changed at all: “A lot of the new materials and new methods still trace their lineage to traditional materials found on a house.”

By Amelia Pollard Bloomberg
Photos: Vision 3 Architects. Illustration: Stephanie Davidson