Power of Washington wood buildings moves into spotlight


Wood is a powerful and versatile material, and sometimes it feels like the range of its uses is practically limitless. Just this week, a new study came out showing that computer chips are now being made of wood. Computer chips!

Wood’s wide application was also on display with a long story in this month’s issue of Seattle Business Magazine. The article is one of the most in-depth stories we’ve seen on the rise of cross-laminated timber (CLT) in the construction of tall buildings. And best yet: it’s written from a Washington State and Pacific Northwest perspective.

The article is definitely a must-read for anyone with an interest in the future of Northwest forestry. From its very first paragraph, the story pulls you in.

Before aerospace, software and coffee defined the Pacific Northwest, timber was the industry that fueled our economy. Now, a radical new approach toward sustainable construction — building high-rises from wood — could bring timber back into the spotlight, stimulating rural economies and promoting forest health in a way that architects, conservation groups and timber companies can get behind.

The potential reach of CLT is unprecedented.

What makes CLT so compelling is that it can be manufactured using “junk” trees with diameters as small as 4 inches, including many dead trees. National forests on either side of the Cascades are filled with “dog-hair thickets” of Western hemlock, Douglas fir and other trees that are conducive to wildfires and pest outbreaks. Thin trees are uneconomical to harvest today because they have so little value, yet federal and state forest managers don’t have the budget to clear them. When incorporated into CLT panels, that wood could provide the raw material to build many of the mid-rise buildings popping up in Seattle and other urban centers across the country.

“Everybody sees it coming,” says Timothy Punke, senior vice president of corporate affairs and public policy at Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns vast forestlands in Washington state. “It’s a huge opportunity to build environmentally friendly cities while helping rural economies that depend on timber and creating incentives for more people to plant more acres as trees.”

As the story makes clear, CLT has the support of the Washington forestry industry and local and federal officials, and the excitement is growing even among environmental groups.

…(L)ocal leaders are moving forward to explore (CLT) opportunities aggressively. “It’s a potentially powerful way to monetize the ability to restore our forests, remove some of the fuel load and even start to create a more complex working forest,” says Gene Duvernoy, who as CEO of Forterra (formerly the Cascade Land Conservancy) is known for bringing together divergent environmental and business groups behind common goals. If the industry can be developed sustainably, Duvernoy says, it should happen here. “We are a leader in technology, aerospace and coffee,” he notes. “We have lots of forests. We deserve to be a leader in this world.”

Last September, Forterra hosted a meeting that brought together an unlikely alliance of Pacific Northwest environmentalists, timber companies, politicians, architects and academics in the hope of jumpstarting an industry around CLT. The group continues to convene monthly to identify opportunities to demonstrate the value of CLT for communities, the environment and the economy. 

The potential of the CLT market is staggering.

Analysts estimate the market potential in the United States is $4 billion, but sales could eventually grow far beyond that. Cees de Jager, chief marketing officer of the Softwood Lumber Board, an industry group, says 77 percent of the square footage built each year in the United States is less than 12 stories high and could be made with mass timber.

Tall wood buildings could revolutionize the Washington timber industry.

CLT could fundamentally change the way forests are managed by creating demand for small-diameter trees. Support from environmentalists might also result in compromises that would stop court challenges that are now stalling harvesting in federal forests. Confidence that a steady supply of small-diameter wood would be available could encourage mill owners to consider investing in CLT manufacturing, although some subsidies might be required to encourage the first investments. There is discussion of state support for a CLT plant in Darrington, near the site of the 2014 Oso landslide. The city of Forks has offered land and is looking for a partner to build a CLT mill. 

Not surprisingly, Washington companies, as well as Washington State University, are at the forefront of CLT innovation, leading a program to form a complete CLT supply chain in the Northwest.

WSU is working with (Vaagen) Brothers Lumber, a technologically advanced Colville-based sawmill and logging company; Spokane Valley’s Berg Manufacturing, which has sophisticated capabilities for installing plumbing and electricity in containers used for camping; and SmartLam Technologies, a Montana-based CLT manufacturer. The goal is to build a pilot manufacturing facility to advance the state of the CLT manufacturing art.

“Ideally, you would put timber in one end and get [smart] panels with the plumbing and electricity already installed at the other end,” says Andy Barrett, executive director at Berg Manufacturing. The electricity and plumbing would be connected at the same time the panels are bolted together at the construction site.