October 18, 2017
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How the Bangor region could manufacture a new type of timber to replace steel and cement

By Darren Fishell, BDN Staff
Updated:

Editor’s note: This is the sixth piece in an ongoing series seeking to understand how the Bangor region could grow its economy. Read the rest here.

New building methods are making wood construction competitive with concrete and steel, in a shift that holds potential for parts of Maine hit hard by the paper industry’s free fall.

The new type of engineered wood is already making its way into construction in the United States and Canada, but the Northeast market lags behind. As momentum grows, the question is whether the wider Bangor region can capitalize on the burgeoning growth to become the place that manufactures it.

Several recent signs point to the Bangor region’s potential to host cross-laminated timber manufacturing, including a $101 million investment in Maine forestland and a $500,000 award to the University of Maine in Orono. But no one has yet made solid plans to locate a facility here.

Europe, Canada and cities on the West Coast have shown it’s possible to build mid-rise buildings supported by wood and that costs will come down as the new market matures. British Columbia has an 18-story wood building, and developers of the tallest such building in the United States — at 12 stories — secured a building permit in Oregon this summer.

Those buildings use planks of lumber stacked in perpendicular layers, like a Jenga game, that are then bonded together to form what’s called cross-laminated timber, or CLT. It’s part of a family of engineered “mass timber” technologies that let builders go higher with all-wood structures.

It presents a rare opportunity for a new wood product that could be made in Maine, a place with the knowledge and infrastructure to get large quantities of wood out of the forests to major urban centers that are within a day’s drive.

“Mass timber and CLT is the first real wood product that competes with and displaces steel and concrete rather than other wood products,” said Stephen Shaler, director of UMaine’s School of Forest Resources and associate director of the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

If builders in New York and Boston alone used new layered wood panels to build just 1 percent of new commercial and multifamily units, it could support at least two mills, employing about 30 people each, according to a study commissioned by the New England Forestry Foundation.

By jobs, that would be a small start, but Shaler said that manufacturing would allow the state to deepen its bench of wood products by adding another layer of in-state processing before products get to the end user.

The study also pegged the cost of a new facility at roughly $21 million, but it could be cheaper if located next to an existing sawmill or in one of the industrial sites left vacant by paper’s decline. Such a plant would be energy-intensive and require about 71,000 square feet of space for lumber storage and machinery.

With that also comes demand for engineers, architects and designers with skills specific to those new products that could open up Maine to new economic activity driven by demand outside the state, Shaler said.

The industry hasn’t yet inspired new manufacturing investment, but Maine has had at least one early bet on the future of those products.

Last October, 10 investors showed up to bid on 290,000 acres of Maine’s North Woods across Aroostook, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties. A trail of public records identified the winner as a family trust of Subway co-founder and South Portland native Peter Buck.

Tall Timber Trust paid Canopy Timberlands $101 million for the land, according to tax records.

Gary Bahlkow, a forestry consultant for the winning bidder, at the time said the long shadow cast by the collapse of pulp and paper markets opened the door for a long-term timberland play at a decent price. CLT is a key part of that bet.

“I’ll be surprised if there isn’t a plant developed somewhere in Maine in the near future,” Bahlkow said in a recent telephone interview.

[A rift in the woods]

An effort to bring that kind of manufacturing to Maine got a boost last week.

Researchers at UMaine will launch the Maine Mass Timber Commercialization Center after winning $454,500 from the federal government, matched by $541,000 from the university and industry partners.

The grant stems from a group that’s held informal monthly meetings for more than a year on CLT’s potential, following the recommendation of federal economic development officials who studied the collapse of Maine’s paper industry.

There’s potential for the Bangor area to benefit, as it’s historically a link between the Northeast’s major cities and the region’s deepest wood basket.

Russell Edgar, a senior manager at UMaine’s advanced structures lab who organized the mass timber working group, said he has fielded inquiries about wood supply and species from potential manufacturers, but no deals have advanced.

For one, CLT construction faces a chicken-or-the-egg problem in the Northeast: Do you build a plant and expect orders to roll in, or do you try to line up orders despite having no production capacity?

That problem of where to start extends down the line, too. Building materials are more costly to ship from far away, but experts say early demonstration projects can help spur interest in regional manufacturing. Either builders or investors in manufacturing will need to take a leap.

“If you get buildings going up [in the Northeast] that are 10 stories made out of wood, then that will snowball,” Edgar, with UMaine, said.

Once that supply chain is up and running, past projects in the U.S. have shown the potential for wood construction to lower project costs and compete with steel and concrete, at certain building heights.

A case study by the nonprofit WoodWorks, which supports the softwood lumber industry, found mass timber used to build a four-story Alabama hotel cut construction time by 20 percent, required a smaller crew and lowered the costs of the building foundation by having a lighter building. The savings helped offset higher materials costs.

A 2016 cost study by the Portland-based builders Consigli Construction estimated a higher education classroom and laboratory in southern Maine would cost about 28 percent more for the materials alone, with CLT components coming from Montana or Austria. But savings on construction time and crew closed that gap, bringing the estimated cost for the total project to roughly 1 percent higher than a steel or concrete option.

Edgar hopes to get Maine past the chicken-or-the-egg problem with mass timber.

The barrier remains demand. Building codes have been slow to integrate new manufactured wood products, meaning more work for architects or designers who want to use those materials.

In a big advance, the 2015 international code standard included CLT as an option for buildings as tall as five stories, but those rules aren’t in effect everywhere. Maine is on track to approve them by the end of the year, while an update in Massachusetts is a little further off. New York state has approved those standards, but New York City sets its building codes separately.

Ricky McLain, director of architectural and engineering solutions at WoodWorks, said there’s also a learning curve for architects and designers who haven’t seen fundamental changes in structural building materials for decades.

“Folks aren’t even aware that this is an option,” McLain said.

McLain’s group helps designers and architects address the considerations unique to mass timber construction and to dispel common misconceptions, like convincing people of the science showing thick untreated wood support systems don’t just go up like a tinder box.

When burned, the wood forms a thin char layer that helps insulate the interior of the panel or beam, protecting it from the intense heat and allowing it to remain standing.

“It’s a product we’re going to see a lot more use of in the coming years, and the Northeast and Maine included will certainly have a big role,” McLain said.

Despite barriers, the market is set to grow quickly due to demand from residential builders and educational institutions, according to an analysis by Grand View Research Inc. The group valued the U.S. market at $65 million in 2016.

Wood construction taller than five stories still faces a long road ahead in the United States, as the group overseeing the international standards declined to raise the allowable height for CLT structures in 2018, pushing the next possible update to 2021.

[Two maps that show the promise of Maine’s forest industry]

Lucas St. Clair, who manages 42,000 acres of working forest through the Quimby Family Foundation, also expects the market to grow. St. Clair said the foundation that holds land purchased by his mother and Burt’s Bee’s founder Roxanne Quimby is currently reviewing its timber management plan, and the potential of the mass timber market is a part of that decision-making.

“There’s this huge fiber resource, and we should be able to use it for something, and clearly it’s not pulp and paper anymore,” St. Clair said.

The growth of a mass timber market would do little to raise demand for wood consumed by the pulp and paper industry, as CLT is made with softwood lumber approved for construction uses, such as spruce, fir and pine species common in Maine. Studies are underway to test variants made with hemlock species that have limited commercial uses.

As a result, Shaler said that could change how landowners manage their forests, prompting them to move to longer crop rotations to better target sawlog production.

Still, the decline in the pulpwood market stings. That market gives landowners a moneymaking outlet to remove smaller and lower-quality trees used to make woodpulp and then paper.

Removal of those trees serves a double purpose of improving output of valuable sawlogs. While making up only one-third of the harvest, sawlogs make up roughly two-thirds of the value. Pulpwood makes up about half of the annual harvest, in green tons, and around one-third of the value.

“The beauty of pulp or biomass is that you can get some of the lower quality wood out, make a little bit of money out of it and improve the quality of your sawtimber,” Shaler said. “You still want to have those other markets, for sure.”

[Paper mills are closing, but Maine’s economy still relies on logging]

In Europe, requirements to reduce carbon emissions in new buildings have helped create demand for building with wood, which keeps climate-warming carbon dioxide trapped as the next crop of trees sequester more.

Even without such requirements in the U.S., experts say CLT manufacturing is destined to pop up in the Northeast. Montana and Oregon already have plants, as does Quebec.

None is within a 500-mile radius of New York City, Boston or Philadelphia.

That distance matters for two main reasons: builders want materials within a day’s drive, and they get bonus points for sourcing within that range when they apply for LEED sustainability certification.

Bangor’s in that range for all three cities and on the edge of the region’s wood basket. Other populous places in that range, including in Massachusetts, are also eyeing CLT manufacturing.

Based on wages in wood manufacturing, many Maine counties show promise for investors deciding where to locate a CLT operation in the Northeast. Penobscot and nearby counties have some of the highest concentrations of wood product manufacturing jobs in the region, meaning the region has workers with the skills to make CLT.

The state has the most trees per person of any connected to the northern forest spanning from Maine to Minnesota and, in similar fashion, relies the most on those woods for jobs.

Maine wood manufacturing jobs pay relatively well compared with other jobs in the local economy, but they pay about 12 percent less than wood manufacturing jobs elsewhere in the Northeast, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Labor.

Frank Lowenstein, deputy director of the New England Forestry Foundation, said the CLT market has the potential to improve the economic connections between the region’s urban areas and rural areas.

“You have a virtuous cycle of connecting urban populations that need housing and need office space to the rural landscape that needs jobs,” Lowenstein said.

That’s evident in the vacant paper mill buildings and industrial facilities that dot Maine, but Lowenstein noted those hold some promise for a CLT manufacturer who could save costs by reopening such a facility rather than building one from scratch.

“There’s no shortage of existing buildings that could be repurposed in this way,” Lowenstein said.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

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