There's new legislation in both chambers of the U.S. Congress that would boost R&D for tall wood buildings. If passed, the Timber Innovation Act could be a game changer for Washington State’s mass timber industry. The bipartisan legislation would open up new markets and create jobs for rural economies by providing research funding, technical assistance, and lower costs for the construction of tall wood buildings throughout the United States.

The Timber Innovation Act:
  • Establishes a new performance-driven R&D program advancing construction of tall wood buildings (i.e., those over 85 feet or 7 stories in height);
  • Authorize the USDA Tall Wood Building Prize Competition for the next five years;
  • Creates federal grants to support state, local, tribal, university, and private sector education, outreach, and R&D to accelerate the use of wood in tall buildings;
  • Incentivize the retrofitting of existing facilities located in areas with high unemployment rates; and
  • Authorizes technical assistance efforts currently underway by USDA, in cooperation with qualified state officials, to aid those utilizing mass timber products.

To ensure benefits flow to distressed rural communities that most need help, a provision was included by Rep. Kilmer to require that the grant program prioritizes projects that utilize existing mill infrastructure in areas currently suffering high unemployment. Grant money will provide an economic boost to cities like Forks and Port Angeles that have experienced recent mill closures.

Many in Washington State’s congressional delegation were original cosponsors of the legislation. The Senate bill was introduced in May 2016 with Washington’s junior Senator Maria Cantwell among its sponsors. This month a House companion emerged (H.R. 5628) sponsored by Representatives Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), and Glenn Thompson (R-PA).  

Read the washington business alliance blog article about Washington State's Mass Timber Opportunity

Washington’s delegation is leading on this issue partly because the state is well positioned to benefit from a mass timber revolution toward replacing steel and concrete with wood products in the construction of tall, multi-story buildings. There are huge environmental benefits to using wood in this manner. It can reduce the risk of wildfires and provide an economic boost to distressed rural economies.

While wood has been used as a building material for centuries, modern technology enables construction with wood products that are more flexible, less flammable, and sturdier than ever before. As Natasha Geiling of Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Builders can use timber products for the main structural frame, and then rely on concrete and steel only at locations in the building of high stress, like joints. Mass timber products can be pre-assembled, almost like huge Lego pieces, so building with them can be cheaper and more efficient.”

New advanced wood technologies like cross-laminated timber (CLT) manufacturing give wood the strength and fire resistance of wood and steel. In contrast to those carbon intensive materials, CLT and other wood products have carbon negative impacts. Greenhouse gas is sequestered in the wood products, and one frees up the sequestration capacity of forests by harvesting and replanting our working forests.

Across the country there are millions of trees that are diseased and dead. In California alone some 29 million trees died in 2015 due to a drought-driven bark beetle infestation. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, told Smithsonian Magazine that these dead trees played a major role in spurring USDA interest in tall wood buildings. Sustainably removing dead or diseased trees for CLT manufacturing could be a win-win for both the timber industry and environmentalists — two groups whose relationship has long been strained.

Some forms of timber harvest can occur within old growth areas while actually improving the health of the forest. Forest thinning is the selective removal of some trees in order to improve the growth rate, health, and wildfire resistance of the remaining trees. Because CLT can be produced using trees that are small in diameter, which means that wildfire prevention and CLT manufacturing can be complementary processes.

Almost 100 different organizations have endorsed the bill so far, including American Forest Foundation, American Wood Council, The Conservation Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and Weyerhaeuser. Washington Farm Forestry Association, Washington Forest Protection Association, Port of Port Angeles, Oregon Forest & Industries Council, and atelierjones LLC.

Statements

“Broadly, we are concerned about the fact that there are an extraordinary number of diseased and dead trees in the western United States that represent a severe fire hazard. In order for that wood to remain a store of carbon, we’ve got to figure out a way to use it, otherwise Mother Nature will ignite a forest fire with a lightning strike, and we will lose the carbon that is stored in those trees.”

  • Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture

“Cross-laminated timber is an integral piece in several of our ongoing discussions. Constructing buildings from wood instead of concrete and steel yields huge benefits in terms of carbon savings and carbon storage. This is just the first of a series of bills I plan to introduce both to foster the construction of more efficient buildings and to bring additional economic growth to our state.”

  • Maria Cantwell, U.S. Senator (D - WA), Original cosponsor of S. 2892

“Good stewardship within our National Forests should be a priority. The Timber Innovation Act is a win for rural communities, because it will incentivize forest thinning and forest health management, and reduce wildfires. Encouraging the use of cross-laminated timber will provide new markets for the production of advanced wood buildings throughout Eastern Washington.”

“Advancing tall wood building construction through the Timber Innovation Act is a win for working families and our environment. Technological advancements in cross-laminated timber have made it easier for us to support healthy forests, wildlife habitats and rural economies dependent on forest products. Encouraging the use of green building materials instead of building materials dependent on fossil fuels reduces greenhouse gases creating a cleaner, healthier environment for future generations.”

“With cross-laminated timber we can utilize an abundant and sustainable product native to Washington state that connects rural economies to greener urban growth. Our bipartisan bill would make it easier for construction sites across the country to use sturdy, innovative, renewable wood products grown and manufactured on the Olympic Peninsula.”

“CLT will revolutionize how our nation designs, constructs, and experiences the built environment.  CLT allows us the opportunity to build with a material that promotes forest health and sequesters carbon rather than carbon emitting concrete and steel. For rural communities here in the West, CLT means jobs.  These jobs encompass a wide range of professional, technical, advanced manufacturing jobs that diversify the fabric of these small communities. The bill introduced by Senator Cantwell will provide the steps necessary for a sustainable new technology to root.”

  • Dan Rankin, Mayor of Darrington, Washington

“While wood is one of the oldest building materials around, new technology utilizing engineered mass timber panels and wood-based building systems creates new possibilities for wood use. Because the potential of these advanced materials is enormous, the Timber Innovation Act will help to build new markets for these new wood products. I want to thank lawmakers for introducing this important bill.”

  • Tim Punke, Senior Vice President, Weyerhaeuser Company

“By increasing the use of wood sourced from sustainably managed forests for tall building construction will encourage landowner investment in forests, which will improve forest health, watershed quality, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration. We commend the sponsors of this bill for their efforts to advance the research and development of wood as a tall building material which will promote greener buildings and improved forest management.”

  • Collin O’Mara, President & CEO, National Wildlife Federation

“These bills represent an important development in moving forward on CLT development in the US.  When wed with sustainable forest management, CLT represents a building product that will dramatically reduce the ecological impact and carbon footprint of our ever expanding urban environs.”

  • Thomas DeLuca, Director, School of Environmental & Forest Sciences, University of Washington

“If we are to truly sustain our region’s ecosystems, communities and economies into the next century, we must change the game and explore market-based solutions to the challenges confronting our region, from our urban centers to our wild and working landscapes. The sustainable use and production of cross-laminated timber allows all boats to rise together, strengthening rural economies while providing a new building product for cities.”

  • Gene Duvernoy, President, Forterra