Build It with Wood in New England with mass timber

The mission of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) is to help landowners conserve and manage their forests, so it is no surprise that a number of NEFF staff are long-time Guild members. One, big-picture way they work toward their mission is through the new Build It with Wood program. Nicole St. Clair Knobloch, of NEFF explains that as the Foundation was looking for new market opportunities for wood, “We were intrigued by the advent of mass timber products that could be used to construct tall buildings – as tall as six to twelve stories.” Several years ago, taller wood buildings began to be built around the world. In North America and Canada, it was in the Pacific Northwest. “We wondered whether we could do that here,” said St. Clair Knobloch. “With a grant from the U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovations program, we commissioned an analysis from Pöyry Global, an energy- and forestry- consulting firm based in Finland, to study just that.” 

The answer was a resounding yes! Cross-laminated timber (CLT) could be used in New England building markets made from New England wood species. Specifically, the spruce-fir species group, prevalent in Maine, could be used, as well as possibly eastern hemlock and white pine, found in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Both scenarios are good news for our forests and for our rural communities. In Maine, the forest products industry has been looking for a new market for wood since the pulp and paper industry nearly collapsed in 2014, closing mills and leaving economic devastation in many towns. In southern New England, landowners have been looking for markets for low-value wood like hemlock and poor quality white pine. 

The report (Cross-laminated Timber in New England) found that if just 1% of buildings in the U.S. Northeast were built with CLT, it would support one to two mills in New England, leaving far more forest growing than harvested each year. It also found that CLT from this region could be cost-competitive globally.

When NEFF first released the report in April 2017 in Massachusetts and Maine, it attracted the attention of county, state, and federal policymakers, forest landowners, sawmill owners, foresters, developers, architects, and construction companies. Interest has been steadily growing from those stakeholder groups, and potential investors are scouting Maine and Massachusetts for siting a CLT mill.  

CLT may solve several construction problems that Boston, Portland, ME and others are facing: 
  • The rising cost of steel makes concrete and steel buildings cost-competitive only after about twelve stories. Meanwhile, developers are less comfortable using wood stick-frame for higher than five stories, leaving our cities without the density needed to provide more affordable housing. CLT works very well at the mid-rise.
  • CLT cuts construction time and finish materials. 
  • Developers and architects (and the public) love the look and feel of wood – and are excited by the idea of sourcing it locally. 
What’s most exciting is what we can do regarding climate change by using lumber from our forests for mass timber. New England is nearly 80% forested, but losing acres to development every year. Bringing more value to our forests can encourage conservation of this important carbon sink. Using wood in buildings contributes to carbon sequestration and reduces emissions from construction by replacing more energy-intensive materials like concrete and steel. 
As a forestry organization, NEFF is now in a unique position. “We find ourselves at the center, with many regional partners, of the effort to create a vertically integrated supply chain from forests to mills to buildings in our region,” said St. Clair Knobloch. As forests shrink, and the public’s awareness of their importance seems to recede even further, bringing wood into a new set of buildings gives forests new relevance as a solution to other social, economic, and environmental issues.
St. Clair Knobloch summarizes, “Through our Build It with Wood program, we are focused on developing real world projects while also educating all partners and stakeholders on the importance of New England’s forests, of the rural forest economy, and on recognizing the importance of carbon sequestration and reducing the carbon footprint of the urban built environment.”
Thanks to Nicole St. Clair Knobloch, for this article, and the photos: One of the 27 community forests NEFF manages for timber and keeps open to the public (top), U. Mass Design Building, made from CLT and glulam, opened in January, 2017 (bottom three).