Maine’s vast woods have long fueled the major engines of its economy. While those engines don’t run like they used to, the fuel is still abundant and growing.
The state could benefit greatly from turning the lumber from those woods into a variety of new products. But that’s often a process that lingers in the laboratory or doesn’t leave it at all.
For that reason, it’s easy to overlook the simple potential we have to use old, simple sawlogs for new things — like building structures again.
While carbon-cutting goals in Europe drove the continent to lead the way on new types of wood construction, companies in Maine and other states have shown that buildings made of new types of manufactured wood can compete on cost with steel and concrete structures.
And that’s while importing those types of wood — called mass timber — from Montana or Austria.
The economics say it all. More wood construction is coming. Maine government won’t create that market, but there’s a way it can help guide it along, to the state’s benefit.
Building codes are changing bit by bit, making it easier to pick wood construction for midrise projects of up to roughly five stories.
In the Northeast, there’s a huge potential. A recent study by the New England Forestry Foundation estimated that if builders chose wood construction for just 1 percent of the projects in New York City and Boston alone, it could support at least two mills employing about 30 people each.
As much of the wood fueling that construction is likely to come from Maine, the state would lose out if that wood leaves as only dried and rough sawn. Using any one of the state’s vacant industrial spaces to manufacture mass timber products could dramatically lower costs of starting here.
The University of Maine is already doing much of that work, using federal grant money to pay for half of its $1 million Mass Timber Commercialization Center, which will promote bringing new types of wood product manufacturing to the state.
A bill carried over during the last Legislature tried to force the state’s hand in creating the market, seeking to require that all new state buildings use wood construction, including cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Builders balked at the idea of being locked into one type of construction. Rightly so.
But state government should take steps to encourage wood construction options here, especially when it competes on cost with other more carbon-intensive building systems. One way to do this would for the the state to require bidders on state projects to price out a mass timber option.
While that creates more work for bidders, it forces the private sector to become more familiar with mass timber engineering and construction methods, which remains a major barrier to getting those kinds of projects in the ground.
It shows the market another path, rather than demanding it, while growing demand for wood from Maine’s forests.