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Three things to watch as tall wood buildings rise in the Northwest

A closer look at opportunities in the burgeoning Cross Laminated Timber market.

Tall wood buildings are on the rise in the Northwest, along with demand for cross-laminated timber (CLT), the engineered wood product used to make them. With a foothold in Europe, Canada, and New Zealand, the market for CLT is still in its infancy in the United States, but is already estimated at $4 billion.

Building with wood is nothing new, of course — so why the sudden surge of interest? Let’s take a closer look at CLT and three big reasons to pay attention to it.

CLT is changing the building industry.

Against a backdrop of rapidly growing urban populations and a shortage of affordable housing, and in light of the abundance of our region’s forests, interest in CLT from Northwest architects is growing. The material has been incorporated into dozens of low and mid-rise buildings (almost all below 20 stories tall) around the world, including these five buildings that are either in design or construction right here in Oregon:

Lever Architecture’s Albina Yard building

PATH Architecture’s 8-story Carbon 12 building that has broken ground in North Portland and will be 8 stories

Beneficial State Bank’s new Framework building, which is another Lever project and will reach 12 stories

OSU College of Forestry’s new Oregon Forest Science Complex

Springfield’s 4-story parking garage

These buildings are increasingly being referred to as “tall wood buildings” or “mass timber construction.”

The Engineered Wood Association describes a CLT panel as, “several layers of kiln-dried lumber boards stacked in alternating directions, bonded with structural adhesives, and pressed to form a solid, straight, rectangular panel. While at the mill, CLT panels are cut to size, including door and window openings, with state-of-the art CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) routers, capable of making complex cuts with high precision. Finished CLT panels are exceptionally stiff, strong, and stable, handling load transfer on all sides.”

According to the Association, CLT is also lightweight, results in far less waste at the construction site, has lower construction costs than steel or concrete, makes on-site assembly and installation fast and easy, and improves thermal and acoustic performance while meeting or exceeding seismic and fire safety codes.

Mass timber construction could bolster jobs and economies in struggling rural communities.

Once the backbone of Northwest economies, timber towns have been struggling since the era of old-growth logging on federal lands came to a close and the network of smaller, community-based mills has shifted to consolidated, more modernized mills along the I-5 corridor. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees enormous potential for revitalizing rural economies by bolstering production of CLT, estimating that such “next-generation wood products” could create up to 85,000 jobs in struggling rural communities. Last year, along with the Softwood Lumber Board, they awarded $3 million to incentivize tall wood building projects, including Lever’s Framework building for Beneficial State Bank.

man in pink hard hat carrying chain saw on a slope littered with grey tree limbs
Workers conduct a thinning project as part of a forest restoration project in Southern Oregon.

Not only could the growth of tall wood buildings boost job creation in the timber industry, but it could also be a boon to manufacturing. Of the approximately 26 CLT processing facilities worldwide, there are only three in North America. In order to keep up with demand for engineered wood, we have the opportunity to open new CLT manufacturing plants that could source lumber from local mills and accommodate the growing need for CLT and related products.

Renewed and targeted investments in our timber and forest products industry could lead to a transformative opportunity for tall wood buildings to address growing wildfire and forest health threats facing our region’s forests, restore jobs in rural timber communities, and improve the way we manage our forests with the urgency brought on by our changing climate.

equipment loading picking up several cut trees
A forest thinning project underway in Southern Oregon.

Tall wood buildings offer an unprecedented opportunity to change the way we manage our forests.

The inherent environmental benefits of wood are clear. Unlike steel or concrete, which have heavy carbon footprints, forests store carbon — both in the woods as well as in long-lived wood products including building materials. Since concrete is the second most highly utilized substance on the planet (besides water), accounting for up to eight percent of global CO2 emissions, shifting to wood from concrete in the building industry could have a significant impact on carbon sequestration.

But there is an even greater potential upside to CLT to consider: the opportunity to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration across the West. There are currently an estimated nine million acres in Oregon and Washington alone at a high risk of fire on the east side of the Cascades and thousands of acres of overly dense forests on the west side of the mountains in need of thinning. While naturally-occurring wildfires are an important component to forest health, especially in the drier forests on the east side of the Cascades and in Southern Oregon, prescribed burns and forest thinning can mimic natural fires and support forest health and watershed restoration goals. However, with local milling capacity in our dry forest regions at a lower level than nearly any time in the last century, forest health and restoration projects in these areas often struggle to pencil out. They can be expensive to plan and implement and often lack operational mills within a reasonable hauling distance that also accept the size and type of trees being harvested.

Where does CLT come in? The type of wood used to construct CLT can come from very small logs and a variety of species, which offers manufacturers the ability to make CLT out of restoration forest products — small logs from forest restoration thinning. Investments in new processing facilities to marry the growing demand for CLT with the ample supply of small logs from overly dense forests could reduce the risk of severe wildfires, improve habitat, water quality, and forest health, create local jobs and boost rural economies.

The growing interest in mass timber buildings could create markets for restoration forestry, but it could also reinforce business as usual — intensive, industrial forestry that has degraded native fish and wildlife habitat, contributed to serious water quality problems around the region, consolidated milling infrastructure, and promoted a boom-and-bust economic cycle for many rural communities.

To better understand the exciting opportunities that the growth of CLT provides, Ecotrust is working to help answer a few questions particularly relevant to our region:

How can the growing mass timber market help increase the pace and scale of restoration forestry in the Pacific Northwest?

How much timber of what species and size could we harvest in Oregon and Washington’s dry forests over the next 20 years under carefully-planned restoration forest harvests? And how much of this supply would be suited for CLT production?

Where are the hot spots for restoration forestry and potential CLT facilities?

To hear more about the opportunities, challenges and potential climate change benefits presented by good wood in building projects, join Brent Davies at the Mass Timber Conference, hosted in Portland on March 30.