Innovative wood building technology could support forests and jobs in rural Massachusetts

Study finds capacity exists for a cross-Laminated timber plant – Baker administration to explore possibility of plant in Massachusetts
Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash
Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash

AMHERST, Mass. –  The New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) and the European engineering consulting company Pöyry presented the results of a study of cross-laminated timber (CLT) wood building technology alongside assistant secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Dan Sieger, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash, and other dignitaries on April 5, 2017. 

This announcement was made during a news conference at the new Design Building at UMass Amherst, which was recently constructed using from CLT from Canada. At 87,000 square feet the Design Building is the largest modern wood building in the Northeastern U.S.  The building contains 70,000 cubic feet of wood and saves the equivalent of over 2,300 metric tons of carbon when compared to a traditional energy-intensive steel and concrete building. The UMass Building and Construction Technology Department developed some of the CLT technology and has been testing native Massachusetts species for CLT suitability via a National Science Foundation grant.

In remarks following the presentation, Assistant Secretary Sieger and Secretary Ash expressed support for the technology, which could meet the Administration’s goal of finding materials and methods to lower the costs and increase the speed of construction. They also expressed enthusiasm for the possibility of creating rural jobs and helping conserve Massachusetts forests in the process. Secretary Ash indicated his office would be investigating next steps to make a cross-laminated timber facility in Massachusetts a reality.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) is a revolutionary building technology currently more commonly used in Europe, Australia and Canada that is opening up new opportunities for wood in the construction industry. Comprised of multiple layers of sawn lumber, the material is used in floor, roof and wall assemblies in low-, mid- and high-rise construction as an environmentally-friendly alternative to steel and concrete.

Pöyry, working with Innovative Natural Resources Solutions LLC of New Hampshire, found that cross-laminated timber has potential to penetrate building markets for mid-rise buildings in New England. They also found that Massachusetts has an abundant supply of hemlock, currently an underutilized species with a low commercial value, that is suitable for use in CLT.  According to the report, merely a one percent market penetration into commercial, health, mid-rise residential and commercial building markets (e.g. for dormitories, hospitals, office buildings, etc.) would support 1-2 CLT mills in New England.  These plants would produce about 8 million board feet of CLT per year – enough to use the output of 1-2 existing sawmills in southern New England. 

In regard to energy efficiency and construction cost, the study points out that CLT is very compatible with the growing market and demand for LEED certified buildings. In addition the technology results in faster, more efficient construction – helping to lower building costs.  

NEFF conducted the study with a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, State and Private Forestry Branch matched by $93,000 from NEFF and partners including the Maine Timberlands Charitable Trust, the Lennox Foundation, the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

“This study shows yet again that New England forests are a key resource for our rural communities. And in this case they can also help to prevent damaging climate change and improve housing and office stock in urban areas,” said Robert Perschel, Executive Director of New England Forestry Foundation.

“Cross-laminated timber could provide a new market that would create jobs while allowing more effective management of Massachusetts’ forests to improve habitat and forest quality and reducing carbon emissions,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton. “The Baker-Polito Administration looks forward to working with our forestry industry and the environmental community on this great opportunity to showcase the value of locally-grown wood products.”

“This study shows that the concept of growing, manufacturing and building mid-rise buildings in Massachusetts with our own sustainably harvested wood products could be an important part of our rural economic development agenda,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash.  “We look forward to supporting this new technology that has the potential to benefit our forestry and construction industries, and spur economic activity in rural areas of the Commonwealth.”

“US Forest Service Wood Innovation Program grants help introduce new uses of wood as a construction material in commercial buildings,” said Constance Carpenter, the Forest Service New England-New York Representative.  “They can also be used to stimulate wood products markets that can be supplied over the long term through management of public and private forests.”

“Forests are the most widespread habitat in Massachusetts, New England and the world,” said Frank Lowenstein, Deputy Director of the New England Forestry Foundation. “They are a vital resource for our rural communities, and using them wisely can help New England communities thrive.”

A study from Harvard Forest found that only two percent of wood used in Massachusetts is produced here creating the “illusion of preservation” as we import all our wood products from other parts of the world with lower oversight over forest harvesting and with significant added transportation energy.  A recent scenario modeled by Harvard Forest found that Massachusetts could nearly double its production of forest products over the next 50 years while maintaining the carbon held in our forests when compared with current trends.  Massachusetts currently harvests only 18 percent of the annual growth of our forests and markets for wood of low commercial value, like CLT, are needed to encourage improvement forestry, where forest values for wildlife, water and future wood products increases over time.

Use of CLT in wood construction could also help to address climate change, as documented in a new paper in prepublication in the Journal of Forestry by authors from New England Forestry Foundation, Woods Hole Research Center and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. In the article, “Seeing Forests for More than Carbon in Trees: Incentivizing Actions Beyond Carbon Storage to Mitigate Climate Change,” the authors call for expanding the use of forest products in residential and commercial building construction to avoid emissions of carbon and to sequester more of it, as well as managing forests for additional climate benefits beyond storing carbon.

The Report and additional information can be found by visiting the New England Forestry Foundation’s website.

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