Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part series on cross laminated timber. The first part ran in Tuesday’s edition of The Daily World.
Cross laminated timber is being touted by many as the next big deal in construction. Called CLT for short, it’s a wood product that, according to proponents, is as structurally sound as more traditional materials such as steel and concrete, environmentally friendly and quicker and cheaper to construct.
There is a small, but growing, market for the product, and only two CLT producers in the United States. That has led elected officials, economic development organizations and others here to explore bringing CLT production to Grays Harbor County, noting the local abundance of raw materials, a ready-to-go workforce and the long history the area has in the timber industry.
The University of Washington has been a proponent of CLT for years. Cintrafor, The Center for International Trade in Forest Products, is part of the UW’s School of Environmental & Forest Sciences. Their purpose is to explore new ways to improve and promote the wood and fiber industrye, economically and environmentally.
“Building with cross-laminated timber has clear environmental benefits because it reduces the carbon footprint of new construction,” Lisa Graumlich, Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, said at a 2014 CLT forum hosted by Congressman Derek Kilmer. “In Washington state, there is an added benefit: the production of cross-laminated timber creates a market for small diameter timber. This creates an economic incentive for thinning operations that improve overall forest productivity and enhance habitat quality for species of concern.”
Kilmer, elected officials, environmental groups, the Department of Natural Resources and more believe the addition of a CLT manufacturing business on the timber-laden Olympic Peninsula would be a natural fit, one that makes sense environmentally, economically and fits in well with the region’s storied timber history.
“Grays Harbor faces the same challenges many rural communities here face: after a 20-year decline in the timber industry, it then suffered from the national economic recession. We can’t rely on business as usual if we want to ensure a sustainable and economically vibrant future for our rural places,” said Leda Chahim, government affairs director for Forterra, a “design and build nonprofit” that strives to link the preservation of natural lands with existing social and economic needs. “Responsibly sourced CLT can provide a sustainable and economical means to house a growing population in our cities while strengthening our state’s rural communities at the same time. British Columbia and Oregon have two of only three CLT manufacturing facilities in North America. Forterra believes Washington could be next and Forterra is working with a broad coalition to get us there.”
CLT’s potential in the area has brought state agencies, nonprofits and timber interests together in an attempt to make the business climate favorable to entities that are willing to provide the capital needed to start up a production facility here.
“We’re working on a number of efforts on that front,” said Kilmer. “One is an effort to bring stakeholders together here in the region to get folks from the business community working on this. Then there are legislative efforts; for example, I serve on the appropriations committee and was able to get a provision in directing the Department of Defense to explore using these kinds of products while constructing facilities. In fact a facility was just completed at an Army base in Alabama, an all cross laminated timber hotel associated with the base.” He added the Army Corps of Engineers is working on finishing touches for standards for using CLT. Once that is completed “that will help, and we’ve already seen some progress.”
Kilmer and others drafted legislation in 2015 encouraging the use of cross laminated timber, adding language that “put a premium on reinvesting in rural communities, and trying to do facility upgrades and improvements for mills that have gone down and to get them back in working order,” said Kilmer. “The idea is we can capitalize on what we already have. We are working to build support on both sides of aisle to make sure the Olympic Peninsula is known as a place where we can make these materials.”
“The whole forest health topic comes into play too,” said Brian Hatfield, timber products adviser to Gov. Jay Inslee. “We have 2.7 million acres of forest that need treatment, can use some thinning — traditionally known as pre-commercial thinning. We could turn that into a commercial operation.”
Pre-commercial thinning is done in advance of the harvest of mature trees, clearing away underbrush and other unharvestable trees. The lack of logging has allowed for the buildup of underbrush in some forests, especially east of the mountains. The material that would be collected by thinning would go a long way toward lessening the damage of forest fires and is an excellent source of wood for CLT manufacturing. “And the idea of using fire salvage and beetle kill salvage lumber for CLT,” said Hatfield, or even cull boards from mills and turning it into “a quality product” makes CLT manufacturing in this area a win all around.
“It’s bringing together so many diverse groups to work on this and it has become a big part of my job promoting wood products in general,” he said. “Building with a renewable resource that does sequester carbon and uses a lot less energy, one that is grown and then produced into building materials.”
An existing experienced pool of potential workers would also be attractive to potential investors. “We’ve got the workforce here,” said Hatfield. “If you worked, or work, in a plywood mill, you would have some experience. And we have the aerospace industry here, and CLT manufacturing uses similar machines.” Like most timber plants, and plants in general, there would be work for both skilled and unskilled labor as well as management and high-tech positions in a CLT facility.
“The first all-weather plywood, called Super-Hardboard, was developed in 1934 in Aberdeen,” said Lauren Burnes, who advises the Commissioner of Public Lands on forest and conservation policy. “Now we have UW via the Federal Wood Innovation Grant researching thermal modification and carbon based nanoparticles for CLT.” Received in the 2016 grant cycle, the funds will allow researchers to find ways to increase CLT’s fire resistance even further and be able to use CLT outside without the need for exterior protection, essentially an all-weather CLT.
As great as it sounds, no matter what, it’s going to take cold hard cash to get a CLT plant to take root here in Grays Harbor County, and a pretty sizeable chunk of it at that.
“The biggest hurdle is no matter what — and I’ve learned this from working with folks in traditional sawmills — is we can assist at the state level, change laws, add state or federal incentives, maybe a tax break, provide infrastructure,” said Hatfield, “but ultimately we are going to have to have a pretty substantial investment of private money. I’ve heard the private investment to get a facility going is in the $30 million range. No small potatoes.”
A key to attracting investors is producing at least small scale projects. Hatfield says last year’s Legislature put $5.5 million into a classroom demonstration project in five school districts, “so hopefully by next spring we will have CLT walls that people can at least see the product in use.”
The bigger money is in the bigger buildings. “The biggest bang for the buck comes in the 10- to 20-story range,” said Hatfield, “so let’s get this product into the state and into some structures so we have an example” for potential investors.
Concrete and steel manufacturers are concerned and have at times been outspoken about the favorable light shone upon CLT in recent years, but Hatfield says there’s plenty of room for CLT in a world of concrete and steel building.
“There’s plenty of call for their products,” he said. “In 2015 we passed a $16 billion transportation project, so there’s plenty of concrete and steel used in those projects.” Besides, he said, “A lot of people are describing building five over two construction, a couple layers of concrete and five layers of wood.”
So far, testing by the University of Washington and other universities and wood products organizations for CLT’s ability to withstand fire and seismic events has shown it to be an equal, if not better, building solution than more traditional materials, including heavy timber, say CLT’s boosters. Of course, trying to convince a population and construction industry that a wood product can stand up to fire and earthquakes as well as concrete and steel “is a large ship to turn around,” said Hatfield.
“These fabricated buildings can be constructed more quickly and that can save construction costs, and in terms of the carbon footprint there are some benefits over steel and concrete,” said Kilmer. “CLT provides the opportunity to use smaller diameter logs in a more economical way. With its seismic abilities and fire resistance, it provides a really strong option. So if you look at our state, it has been the birthplace of innovation in software, planes and even the way the world drinks its coffee. CLT is an opportunity to drive innovation in building that could really benefit rural Washington.”