The whole forest life cycle

My contribution to Virginia Forests Magazine
The whole forest life cycle

Most of our mid-rise and almost all our tall buildings are made mostly from concrete and steel. Production and transport of concrete and steel buildings is extremely energy intensive and emits massive amounts of CO2.  We just cannot build in the same old wasteful way. Fortunately, there is a simple solution – wood the original green building material, now updated for the 21st Century.
Mass timber: new technology for wood
The key is the development mass timber, a category that includes heavy timber beams and various sorts of laminated timber.  Of these, the most revolutionary is Cross laminated timber (CLT). As the name implies, boards set across each other creating a mass timber product combining strength in both tension and compression, with the power and spanning capacity of steel and fire resistance of concrete. This last factor is surprising. Everybody knows that wood burns and we have all seen pictures of buildings engulfed in flames, but mass timber chars. If you have tried to start a campfire using only big logs, you know the situation.  The outside turns black, but the fire does not penetrate.
CLT means that wood can replace concrete or steel in the mid and high-rise buildings they now predominate.  It is a revolutionary development.
Well managed forests are the key

But I am not an engineer or an architect. I can tell you only what experts tell me about these innovations building with wood, and I believe them. Forests I know from personal experience and lifelong passion and it is my land ethic and understanding of a total forest life cycle that drives my commitment to building with wood.
The way I see it wood in the built environment is an extension of the life of our forests.  Our trees suck up (sequester) carbon every year they are growing.  When they are harvested, wood processed into CLT used in tall buildings can hold onto that carbon for years, decades even centuries.  Carbon makes up about 50% of wood’s dry weight.  Meanwhile, we are growing the next generations of trees, also absorbing carbon while creating wildlife habitat, protecting water resources and just being things of beauty.
The whole virtuous circle depends on our good forest stewardship.  The wood in our high-rise “urban forests” must come from properly managed and probably certified forests.  It would not do to deforest our land to build the urban forests. We must look forward to future generations. Fortunately, Virginia tree farmers are up to the challenge.  It is what we do and have done since the American Tree Farm System was created, a proud legacy made newly important by timber innovation.
This is the contribution we can make, are making and will make in future.
Good background

Mass Timber road show

The Think Wood mobile tour is a beautiful museum-quality display showing environmental & economic benefits of different softwood lumber and engineered wood products. I attended the launch at the National Building Museum.
New wood technologies
New technologies and innovative techniques are transforming the way we build with wood. The key to much of this improvement is mass timber. This category includes heavy timber beams and various sorts of laminated timber (held together with glue, nail and dowels). The most revolutionary is Cross laminated timber (CLT). As the name implies, boards set across each other creating a mass wood product with strength in tension and compression and giving it the strength and spanning capacity of steel and fire resistance of concrete.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman from Arkansas & architect Susan Jones were among the speakers.
Bruce Westerman
Westerman gave the perfect talk about how and why we need to care for forests. I was mightily impressed that he did it w/o notes. I am not accustomed to such environmental competence in politicians, and I briefly considered moving to Arkansas just so I could vote for this guy. When I looked up his biography, I understood. He has a MA in forestry from Yale.
Besides the discussion about properly caring for forests, Westerman went on that building with wood was something that we can right now do to address climate change. Trees absorb carbon as they grow. When harvested trees go into buildings, the wood may hold that carbon for decades or even centuries. Wood buildings are essentially part of the forests life cycle.
Susan Jones
Susan Jones is probably America’s leading evangelist for cross laminated timber. In fact, it was her talk at the National Building Museum in 2016 the converted me to the cause of mass timber and the forest connection.
She was also instrumental to changing building codes to allow building taller with wood.
Nothing we can do that is more effective to address climate change
I am not an engineer or an architect, so I can tell you only what experts tell me about these wood innovations. Forests I know from personal experience and lifelong passion and it is my land ethic and understanding of a total forest life cycle and my land ethic that drives my commitment to building with wood.
Most of our mid-rise and almost all our tall buildings are made mostly from concrete and steel. Production and transport of concrete and steel buildings is extremely energy intensive and emits massive amounts of CO2. Fortunately, there is a simple solution – wood. Wood is the original green building material.
Besides caring for my own forests and helping others do the same, nothing I can personally do that will do more to address climate change than advocating for more wood used in building medium-rise and tall buildings. Healthy forests and cities built with wood is a virtuous cycle.
Beyond all that, wood is just nice. It makes people feel better to be around wood. Most people like to look at it, touch it and smell it. I know that scientists have figured out the connection. I just know it is true.

My first picture show the exhibit on the rainy day. I took the pictured sheltered in the tent with little salmon sandwiches and free beer. The next picture shows what happens when mass timber is exposed to fire. The outside chars, but it does not easily burn and it maintains its structural integrity. Scientists and fire departments around the world are testing this product and finding wonderful results. Next are pictures of Rep Westerman and Susan Jones. My last picture is one I took a couple years ago at the “Timber City” exhibit showing the types of mass timber.

CLT McDonald's in Chicago (and meeting old friend)

Stopped off in Chicago to have a couple beers with my old Iraq colleague Michael W. Fox. Actually, he had wine.

Like many big cities, maybe more than many, Chicago has undergone a renaissance, becoming more pleasant and more diverse.

Michael is very proud of his home city and showed me lots of the architecture. Not sure what the typical Chicago food would be, but ribs would be on the short list, so we went to a ribs place.

Mass timber and McDonald’s
The architecture I was most interested in seeing was not the most magnificent. I wanted to see the new McDonald’s finished last year using mass timber, cross laminated timber (CLT) and gluelam. I don’t love the ultra modern outside look, but I love the material. Wood is good.

Greater use of mass timber to renew and rebuild our cities is an ecological imperative. Using concrete and steel too much will be more than our environment can bear. CLT can do the job. Wood is the most benign building material and we can grow it regeneratively.
I am sure my friend Susan Jones is familiar with this building, but let me provide a few more pictures and the personal experience.

It is great that McDonald’s is building with CLT. They have the market power and the ubiquity to make a difference. Michael and I enjoyed some McDonald’s food. You can park for free for 30 minutes, enough to eat the fast food. If you stay longer it costs you $12 an hour.

Anyway, kudos to McDonald’s.

Looking for conservation roots

Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West

I am on a kind of conservation pilgrimage up to Wisconsin, where I will meet people at Aldo Leopold Foundation, hike around the kettle moraines, where I first came to appreciate conservation. On the way there, I have stopped in Chicago to see the new CLT McDonald’s and on the way back I will be stopping off at Hoosier National Forest to talk to people doing prescribed burns for oak regeneration.

And I have been studying on the subject. I am finishing a biography of Aldo Leopold and will meet the author in Baraboo. I recently read a joint biography of Gifford Pinchot and John Muir. And just today I finished the audio biography of George Grinnell. I had not heard of him, but he personally knew Muir, Leopold, Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Fredrick Law Olmsted, Stephen Mather and John Wesley Powell. Grinnell was a true connector, if less famous than those he connected. Among his achievements was the creation of Glacier National Park. A glacier, a mountain and a lake there are named for him. He was both an active explorer and an intellectual. He wrote many articles about nature as well as a series of boys’ adventure books.

Grinnell was also a sort of anthopologist, writing about the Blackfeet, the Cheyenne and others. He was with Custer on the exploration of the Black Hills and was almost with him at Little Bighorn.

The man was active.

I have been thinking a lot about conservation and preservation. Grinnell was a hunter and believed in the need to hunt, but he leaned toward preservation, more like Muir than Pinchot. But I think the whole preservation-conservation division has been overtaken by events. I will write more about that when I get back from the pilgrimage.

Ash tree Armageddon.

I drove through Indiana and Ohio today and I had a lump in my throat the whole way that gave me a little sore throat and stress. The cause was all those dead ash trees. Ash were especially common in those states and especially along roads. The emerald ash borer killed almost all of them. It made me profoundly sad to see all that.
I take some solace in that some ash are resistant and maybe biotech can help, but I will not see the restoration in my lifetime.

Ash are beautiful trees. I loved to see them in early fall. Their leaves turned golden earlier than many other species and now so many are lost.
When I go up to kettle moraines, I will check the ash there and see what is coming up under them.    

Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant

The Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant is one of the most advanced in the world. I am interested in biosolids and in water quality, so I went on a tour when I had the chance. In many ways it was reminiscent of the Milwaukee sewage plant that we (my cousins and I) visited last year. When I mentioned the Milwaukee facility to some of the professionals at Blue Plains, they evinced the proper respect. Milwaukee did not invent biosolids, but Milorganite was among the first and still remains one of the most successful use

I was lucky enough (well I kinda made it happen) to sit next to the woman from Blue Drop, the non-profit firm in charge of marketing biosolids form the plant. We talked about how good and useful biosolid are for building soil. Building soil. Biosolids add heft. We can sequester prodigious amounts of carbon in soil if we build soil. I told her that the only problem with biosolids in forestry is that we (at least I) am unable to get them as much as I want. I doubt she will be able to help me with my specific problem, since Brunswick County is too far away, but it is always good to talk with anybody interested.

The plant is underfunded, typical of much public infrastructure, so always looking for ways to cut costs of make money. They use methane from the biodigesters, take advantage of waste heat and they are planning to put solar panels over some of the roofs and tanks.

Selling biosolids
They also think that they can make some money selling biosolids. There are cultural impediments to the sale. People are just grossed out by the thought of recycled poop. But attitudes are changing. They upgraded their ability to process biosolids and now produce class A biosolids. You can see them in my pictures. They don’t look like crap and don’t smell very much, so they are more accepted.

They also gave up using lime stabilized biosolids and instead run them through thermal hydrolysis, a two-stage process combining high-pressure boiling of sludge followed by a rapid decompression. This combined action sterilizes the sludge and makes it more biodegradable and destroys pathogens in the resulting in it exceeding the stringent requirements for land application, i.e. great biosolid.

Thermal hydrolysis
You can see the thermal hydrolysis machine in my picture. It is the first of its kind in the USA. In the USA. This points to an American blind spot. This technology is well established in Europe and it is much better than previous treatments. But we Americans refuse to learn from their experience. It is a similar dynamic for CLT. Procurements often specify that successful projects must be in America. We miss a lot of good idea with our parochial outlook. Americans are leaders in many things, but not all things and good ideas do not stop at the border.

Learn from others
In the early days of our republic, one of the most important duties of American diplomats was to bring back good ideas from other places. We still do this, but we have too much of a “not made here” idea. The Europeans are ahead of us in many aspects of waste treatment and ecological products. We need not reinvent. We can take the best and leave the rest and then move on. Makes sense to me.

Innovation is most often lateral thinking – the adjacent possible. We get that from using the work of others & sharing our own.

Lobbying day for forests

Our day of lobbying went well. We visited staffers from Senators Tim Kaine & Mark Warner, as well as from Representatives Gerald Connolly, Morgan Griffith, Abigail Spanberger, Rob Wittman & Ben Cline. I met a few of the staffers before and they remembered me. I understand that they have notes and do prep, but it is also because of my unique business card. All of those who remembered me mentioned the card. In any case, I am impressed that they took the time to welcome me back. Good constituent relations. My representative is Gerry Connolly. He used to be our Fairfax County supervisor. He is a good guy.

Proud to be American
All the staffers were friendly and listened to our entreaties with interest and attention. It would be unfair to characterize their responses in greater detail, except to note that Ben Cline’s district included our Virginia Tree Farmers of the Year in Highland County, and his staffer was especially interested in maybe meeting them. I can and will, however, list what I told them.

The facts tell; the story sells
I studied the night before the list of the bills we want our Virginia delegation to support and positions we hope they will take, but I decided that I would touch on those things, but that I could give them the leave behind material for details. Instead, I decided to tell my own story, what I think is important about the way we do forestry. The things I really understand and really care about.

Trees are more than wood and forests are more than trees. I started with this mantra, and elided into the triple bottom line, i.e. every endeavor must be good economically, environmentally and for the community. We need the balance and if we fail on any one of them, we fail in general. The challenge for private forest owners, however, is that if we do the ecological and community parts well, we sometimes have problem with the economic part. To address this, I am grateful for government programs.

I gave the example of our own NRCS grants to restore longleaf, protect soils, plant pollinator habitat and manage with patch burns. All these things, I explained, are things I want to do, but could not afford absent the cost shares. For example, pollinator habitat seeds can cost around $300 an acre. I could not justify spending that much money on too many acres. The cost share is exactly that. It costs me time & money to carry out these activities, but it costs less with the help I get. I also greatly value the help I get in the form of advice and planning. The partnership is more powerful than either side could do.

My land is part of a big system
This fed into one of our “asks.” We want support for landscape scale projects for family forests. My land is part of a larger ecosystem. My land affects the health of the big ecosystem and my land’s health is affected by the larger system, so I care about that. Examples of landscape scale projects include longleaf restoration (one I am working on), wildfire mitigation and the white oak initiative.

I went into the white oak initiative in a little more detail both because I am fond of white oak and because it is easy to illustrate. There is today no shortage of white oak. The problem is with it age structure. We have old growth and middle-aged white oak, but there is not enough of the new generation. This is because white oak requires disturbances to allow the right amount of light. Doing this is not rocket science, but it needs to be done. It takes 50-80 years for a white pine to mature, so what we do now matters a couple generations hence.

The hook with white oak is bourbon. ALL bourbon must be aged in new white oak barrels. Other sorts of wood leak. All the color and most of the taste of bourbon comes from the white oak barrels. When you take a drink of bourbon, you are tasting the decades of oak. Even people who do not drink bourbon can appreciate this. In case they do not, wine, most cider and some beer are also oak wood aged.

Landowners cannot by themselves defend their land against invasive insects and plants. The government role here is to limit spread, anticipate invasions and research ways to adapt or overcome the threats. This is often done with grants to universities or to state and local governments. I think this is one of the most important things that government does. The challenge is that it is so important but often not urgent. If not done this year, you might not notice.

It is like nutrition and exercise. Skip a workout and eat nothing but donuts for a day or two and neglecting your health doesn’t much hurt. Neglect it for a long time and it is deadly.

Thanks for past success
We thanked Congress for the Farm Bill, which included lots of forestry friendly factors. One of the parts important to Virginia is the Sustainable Forestry & African American Land Retention program. This is aimed to help African American forest owners whose families owned and often still own forest land. The problem is that many are absentee owners and titles are unclear, with many descendants of the original landowners owning a small piece. This makes it difficult to manage the land and nearly impossible to take advantage of the many government programs alluded elsewhere, state and Federal.

We also thanked the Congress for the wood innovation grants, that have helped develop important innovations like Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and for passing the wildfire fix, and I talked a little about the need for cross-boundary hazardous fuels projects, that will help private forest owners manage fire risk, and for the Community Wood Energy Program (CWEP).

If I sum up our talks, I think we were talking about the big picture, how our lands fit with programs and how the program fit with our lands. We got to know more about each other and understand better.

As Aldo Leopold said, “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.”

More information on the American Forest Foundation at this link.

Pictures show Capitol on the morning of the visit. Next is a beautiful big beech tree on the grounds and a garden path.

Virginia Forestry Summit 2018

At the Virginia Forestry Summit in Richmond. It is fun to hear what people have to say about forestry meet new friends and catch up with old ones. In-person events are important for that. In theory, you could learn more from watching on the web, but you miss the serendipity of unplanned meetings. I also find that I pay less attention if I am on the web. It is too tempting to “multitask” when you are sitting at home.

A good example of the personal contact has to do with CLT. I ran into a guy who works at a major Virginia firm with whom I had discussed CLT production. He said that he wanted to approach his top-management with the idea of making CLT. I forwarded some information and then looked for the DoF guy who works on CLT to make the connection. All of this was unplanned but not unanticipated in the broad sense. Personal meeting is useful.

The meeting started off talking about Carl Schenk. You may not have heard of him, but he is a big deal in forestry. He started the first forestry school in the USA.

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, lots of people worried about a “timber famine”. We were running out of wood, since forests were being cleared and not regrowing fast enough. Schenk was trained in forestry in Germany. He quickly saw that American forests were different, but adapted techniques. We still are using some of the concepts he introduced,although much modified by our greater understanding. We can see farther because we stnd on the shoulders of giants like Schenk.

Interestingly, we no longer talk of timber famine. In fact we have a kind of “timber obesity” i.e. so much wood available that prices are very low. In the Southeast, we have a glut of mature timber. Given the low number of housing starts in the last ten years, we have an oversupply. One speaker said that we have 35% more standing mature pine in the Commonwealth than we did ten years ago. Even if housing picks up, it will take years to work through this surplus, so we cannot expect prices to go up much for saw timber, even if housing picks up. BTW – the price of lumber is going up much faster, but that is not due to cost of wood.

I will write more later. I have to get going now to attend today’s program.
Virginia Forestry Summit

Travel along I-95

I drove all the way from Georgia to Virginia yesterday. I was afraid that I would get fatigued and not know it, so I resolved to stop at all the rest areas along the way. The first I hit was a really nice welcome center in South Carolina.

You can see in my photo that they used a lot of wood construction. This is southern pine, appropriate for this place. It is not CLT, but the beams are gluelam, a decent alternative.
North Carolina has some nice rest stops, but they are normal looking. Virginia’s are done in the colonial style.

One thing you don’t have much at rest stops is shade. I would like to take a 15 minute nap to rest, but with the sun heating up the car it is not easy to do. I wish there were some bigger shade trees, or how about some solar panels. They would do double duty as shade and energy providers.

I only filled up on gas twice: once in South Carolina and then again at exist 104 in Virginia.
In SC, I also bought some firecrackers for the boys. They have some really big things down there in South Carolina.

Material driven expression in timber

The National Building Museum is sponsoring a series of lectures by architects and engineers doing innovative building with wood, specifically with cross laminated timber (CLT).  This goes with their Timber City exhibit showing wood as the once and future building material. I attended on a lecture by Architect Andrew Waugh, who talked about using cross laminated timber and his Murray Grove project (once the world’s tallest modern timber residential building) back in September. Last night, I went to a lecture by Susan Jones on “Material Driven Expressions in Timber.”

Wood: great for building and the environment
Ms. Jones started her lecture by talking about the timber that goes into timber construction. She pointed out that wood is not only a great building material but also a great material from the ecological point of view. Wood is the most ecologically appropriate construction material. It is a building material that is grown, not manufactured. As it grows, it takes carbon from the air and provides beauty, protection for water and soils and a habitat for wildlife. Compare a forest to a cement manufacturing plant or a steel mill and you will see what I am talking about.

We live on a timber rich continent and Virginia is a timber rich state. We should use this renewable resource more. 
Jones pointed out that the relatively new construction with cross laminated timber borrows a lot from construction with concrete and the “Dom-Ino” houses advocated by the famed modern architect Le Corbusier. These were simple houses that took advantage of the capacity of reinforced concrete and steel to span large spaces. This allowed an open floor plan, since there were fewer load-bearing walls. This was not possible with wood until cross laminated timber, which provide strength in both compression and tension, i.e. it can bear significant weight pushing down and can span significant space without bending or breaking.

New opportunities with cross laminated timber
A big advantage of CLT is that it can be cut to order and assembled quickly. Since it is light weight and flexible, it can be used in various ways not possible with other building materials. Jones built her own home with CLT. She showed photos. It is good to know that she walks the walk as well as talks the talk. Living in what you advocate is the ultimate testimonial.

Jones says that architects should be advocates for ecologically more benign construction materials, such as wood. The challenge is cost and codes. Cost will not remain a problem for long. Construction using CLT is already cost competitive with concrete and steel and prices are coming down. A bigger problem is availability.  CLT has been used in Europe since the 1990s and they manufacture it there. In the U.S., there are only two firms making CLT: D.R. Johnson, a firm in Riddle, Oregon, is making CLT out of local Douglas fir and Smartlam in Montana was first in the U.S. to make CLT. These are far from the East Coast.  It is costly to move and we need local sources.

How about a CLT plant in Virginia?
We need a CLT manufacture in Virginia. We grow lots of southern pine and researchers at Virginia Tech has shown that yellow poplar, which grows in glorious perfusion in our Blue Ridge Mountains, can also be used for CLT.  But this is another story, an aspiration that I hope will soon become a reality.

We need more science and testing to show how CLT can be used and how it can be used safely. Currently, most building codes do not allow building in wood of more than six stories. This made sense in the old days but maybe not more. Wood indeed burns, but it does not burn rapidly unless there is kindling. Try starting a log on fire with a match. It forms a char layer and does not easily burn. Recall that at high heat concrete does not burn, but it crumbles and steel bends. Mass timber can provide similar fire resistance and with a few modifications, such a gypsum skin, can do even better.

Wood is the once and future building material
I look forward to wood taking its place in tall buildings and in beautiful architecture.  Talented architects like Susan Jones are leading the way.