As a fourth grader, Ron Anthony was asked a familiar question: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” Even at that young age, his answer was characteristically broad and thoughtful. He wanted to be a forest ranger, scientist, or detective. Years later, he found a way to be all three.
After earning a graduate degree in wood science, Anthony pursued a career assessing the performance of wood structures, understanding why wood fails, and ultimately advising architects. His education at Colorado State University was instrumental in setting this course. The program allowed him to study not only forestry but also wood science and technology. “I studied in a program where structural engineers and wood scientists took classes together,” he says. Where many wood scientists looked at careers in quality control within the lumber industry, Anthony wanted to interact with designers and engineers, focusing on the end use of wood products.
When design began on the Harvard Art Museums with Renzo Piano Building Workshop, it was clear that maintaining the context of the historic Fogg Art Museum and Le Corbusier’s adjacent Carpenter Center would be challenging. Selecting wood as a façade material was intended to be sympathetic to the concrete and brick buildings and the residential neighborhood across the street, but the choice raised several technical questions, and our team needed advice.
Recommended by our structural engineer, Robert Silman Associates, Anthony joined the team. He had recognized technical prowess, the intuitive mastery that comes from years of experience, and true passion. Early in his career, he worked with Jozsef Bodig and Frederick Wangaard, among the most respected names in wood science. “They helped me understand performance characteristics, such as shrinkage behavior, far beyond simple numbers in a reference table,” he says.
For the museum project, we needed a species of wood that offers long service life and minimal maintenance. Piano’s team was initially drawn to Siberian larch, but Anthony knew it was less readily available at that time and other species might be more reliably sourced. “Alaska yellow cedar seemed like just the right option,” he says, “because it had the decay resistance and low shrinkage of red cedar with some of the more desirable physical traits of a hardwood.” It was also available as Forest Stewardship Council–certified lumber. So Alaska yellow cedar it was.
Having selected the species, he flipped to the engineering side of his persona and studied how to configure a wood façade for an institutional building in the Northeast. Consistent with good façade design in this climate, he recommended we design the wood façade as a rain screen, but pushed it further. Recognizing the impact of humid summers and severe winter nor’easters, Anthony suggested we use larger timbers with gaps around each piece to provide four-sided ventilation.
He also developed a technical specification for the wood, identifying the optimal moisture levels, a tight vertical grain, and the maximum size and frequency of knots. These requirements were set with a very precise goal in mind. “We knew the key to this façade’s longevity was having wood that behaved naturally within well-defined limits,” he said.
In the five years since the wood was installed, the weathering stain we applied to simulate its aged appearance is wearing off as expected and is being replaced with a natural patina. It’s beautiful, but more important, the system is performing as expected, with very few warped, checked, or split members. To date, no replacement has been required.