The Timber Age

Andrew Waugh of London-based Thistleton Waugh says that we are beginning the “Timber Age.” I think it’s great as do many others. New designs and buildings are popping up everywhere. This post from The Urban shows an example of a skyscraper that would be 80 storeys tall, making it the second tallest building in London.

It’s encouraging to see such grandiose designs.  I hope to see the completed building in person some day.  Although these structures are impressive there are many other uses of “timber” or wood that may be less in size and complexity, no less important for the environment.

This is an image from the Timbory Company in Germany showing off a clean CLT kitchen  design
Image from the Timbory Company in Germany showing off a clean CLT lunchroom design

Mid and low-rise mixed use buildings, schools, and even single family homes can be constructed differently with these products.

BMW Group, Alpenhotel Ammerwald.  BMW built this CLT hotel for its employees.
BMW Group, Alpenhotel Ammerwald. BMW built this CLT hotel for its employees.

It is my hope that this builds a stronger connection to our forests and the way we manage them.  Matching societies need with societies conservation ethic will be critical in achieving the best use of products and landscape.  It’s hard to tell where all of this is heading, but for many of us, it’s fascinating and exciting.


Why is it important to care about healthy forests? To some of you, it must seem simple and you may even intuitively feel like you know why it’s important. There’s a reason I ask “why.”

I recently had a discussion with my sister Emily. We were talking about podcasts and TED talks. She asked me if I’d listened to Simon Sinek’s TEDx Talk about “why.” I hadn’t – So, I immediately did a search for it and opened it up to be sure it was the right one, which she confirmed.

Later that evening I made some time to watch it. It was fascinating. I would encourage you to check it out for yourself. Basically, he says that we all have a biological need to know why it is that we’re doing something. When we know why” we can get behind a cause. We feel that cause and work diligently to see if come to fruition, regardless of the odds. An example that he gave was the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of flight while there were many other entities that had more money and more support staff.  They were able to do it because they absolutely knew their why.”

So why is great forest management so important to all of us? Forests are beautiful, resilient systems that provide all kinds of benefits for us. The big push in the 80’s and 90’s was to leave that system alone and allow it to be natural. It’s a novel concept that can actually work in some areas of the remote backcountry. In the reality we now know there are dire consequences to leaving the forests alone.


Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles
Overstocked forests that are decimated by pine beetles


People have become an integral part of the forests. Human activity influences the way forests grow, the way they die, and how they die. When we cut trees the forest doesn’t necessarily die or have to start over. We can thin forests and we can mimic natural openings that allow forests to operate much like they would naturally. Why is this important?


Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States
Massive smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

Well, we need to ensure fires don’t get out of control and create mega-fires that scorch the earth and burn everything in their paths. Because of public safety, we will always put fires out and strive to keep them at bay. We must manage the forest systems by thinning, creating openings, and leaving clusters of trees. This will recreate a natural forest type that is resilient to insects, disease and that is ultimately fire. When managed properly in this way, fires can actually be beneficial for the landscape and can also be safely managed.

Beneficial fire
Beneficial fire that reduces fuel levels and protects forests

So why do I do this? Why is it critically important to me? Because I can easily see that we can have all the abundance we want from the forest. We can provide rural jobs in the forest, where the labor of proper thinning and grooming is done. We can also offer rural jobs in the mills, using of the byproducts of forest management to make lumber. We can develop emerging mass timber products that allow us to build better wooden structures in the ever-changing and growing urban landscape. And we can begin to reverse the massive carbon pollution and destruction that mega-fires cause in our forests, by removing some of the small and medium sized trees that threaten the forest as a whole.

Post harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground
Post-harvest thinning with logs stacked in the foreground

I see a historic battle of rhetoric that is built on mistrust and past war wounds. We need to set aside our biases and do what’s best for the forests and the people. This act of intentional balance can be achieved to benefit everything and everyone that depends on our forests. At the end of the day what better “why” is there?

Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area
Northern bend of the Columbia River, which is part of the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area

What is CLT?

It has been asked a few times recently, “So what is this CLT stuff people keep talking about?”

It’s actually pretty simple, but it has some massive implications. Cross Laminated Timber or CLT is essentially construction grade lumber (2×4, 2×6, 2×8 etc.) that’s glued together to make a panel. The key part is that the middle layer is glued in a 90-degree cross layer. This gives the 3 layer panel strength in two directions, making it very strong. This also allows for the creation of large panels made up of relatively small pieces of wood. What starts out as 2×4’s can be cross-laminated to make panels 10 feet wide and in some cases 70 feet long. The panels can also be made into more layers to create even more strength. For instance, a 5 layer panel that would be approximately 7 1/2 inches thick would be stronger than the 4 1/2 inches of 3 layers.

Depiction of a 5 layer CLT panel
Depiction of a 5 layer CLT panel

Many people are concerned about the gluing process and the strength of the bond. We need to keep in mind that we have been using wood glues to hold glue lam beams, finger-jointed lumber, plywood and furniture for decades. This process is simply doing things we’ve done for years and applying it in a different way.

These panels can now be used to supplement steel and concrete in urban environments, thus significantly reducing our carbon footprint. Wood stores carbon during photosynthesis that can ultimately be stored in the wood when we build. This environmental benefit is compounded when we use lumber from forest restoration projects in the fire-prone forests of the west. Thinning these forests prevents catastrophic wildfire. This keeps the forest green, which produces oxygen. The by-products of these projects (small logs > lumber > CLT) go into our buildings for the most effective materials for the environment.

These panels can be engineered to go into a specific part of the building, including creating the openings for windows, doors and anything else necessary for the building. This allows for very efficient construction that is also much quieter than traditional construction. One example is the Forté Building in Melbourne, Australia. According to Lend Lease, they were able to construct the main part of the 10 story structure in 38 days, as opposed to 16 weeks if it were a traditional steel and concrete building. The implications are huge.

The Forte Building in Melborne by Lend Lease Development
The Forte Building in Melbourne by Lend Lease Development

I believe that we are going to see more and more of this. As Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architecture in London was recently quoted, “We’re beginning the Timber Age.” He would know. In the UK, they have already constructed dozens of tall timber structures. Their latest design will push things further, showing people around the world that we are capable of using timber in urban settings in ways we’ve never seen before.

Design for a new mass timber building in London by Waugh Thistleton
Design for a new mass timber building in London by Waugh Thistleton

Something Great Is Happening

The following is an Op-Ed by The Nature Conservancy talking about a new kind of project that our family company and the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition has been working on with the Colville National Forest. It’s great that conservation groups and forest companies are working together to find new solutions to our forest health problems in the fire-prone forests of the west.

Spokesman-Review Op-Ed from TNC’s James Schroeder

A special thanks to the Nature Conservancy and Washington State Director James Schroeder for stepping up and sharing your perspective.

Europe’s Use of Wood

I recently had the privilege of traveling overseas to visit some sawmill equipment suppliers. The experience was amazing. I’ve traveled to Europe five or six times now to visit mills, see new and different equipment, and meet influential people in the world of wood. Although I always learn something new about equipment and its applications, there’s something more inspiring that I have come back with each and every time. It’s the way Europeans utilize wood. Especially in the Alps and Northern Europe.

It becomes apparent the moment you walk into some of the world’s busiest airports.

In Reykjavik, Iceland, the floor and wall panels proudly display wood, both to utilize its strength and show off its amazing beauty.

Iceland's Airport has wood throughout
Iceland’s Airport has wood throughout

In Copenhagen, Denmark there are decorative pieces everywhere.

Wood accents on display in Copenhagen's airport
Wood accents on display in Copenhagen’s airport

In Helsinki, Finland there are artful displays of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and Glue Laminated Timber (GLT, or Glulam beams as we call them) all around the airport.

Beautiful use of CLT for decorative purposes in Finland's largest airport
Beautiful use of CLT for decorative purposes in Finland’s largest airport

It’s amazing. What’s even more amazing is the fact that many of these places aren’t conservative countries that manage their resources better than we do. Many of them are a number of clicks to the left of the United States when it comes to social policies. How is it that countries that are socially liberal do not get caught up in the environmental movement like we have here?

The fact is that they have been at the forefront of the green movement. The sawmill that I visited in central Austria called Hasslacher has solar panels on all of its roofs and makes pellets, and also has a co-gen power plant.

Hasslacher's integrated sawmill, biomass power plant, pellet plant, planer mill, and glue lam timber facility in Sachsenburg, Austria
Hasslacher’s integrated sawmill, biomass power plant, pellet plant, planer mill, and glue lam timber facility in Sachsenburg, Austria

Hasslacher also makes CLT and GLT for a market that understands that wood is the BEST choice for the planet. So what’s the secret?

It’s my opinion that these environmental issues were never politicized like they were in the United States. No one created a winner and loser when it came to forest management. Sure, the timber companies had to adopt new technologies and embrace doing the right thing as new science emerged, but they have been doing that for decades. It seems to be part of the culture in Northern Europe. They understand the importance of the resource, not just in a financial sense, but also in an ecological sense – and possibly more importantly, in a cultural sense for the people who live and work near the forest.

As we look for solutions to our forest management challenges we need to keep in mind that there are others who deal with many of these same challenges around the world. We can learn from them, both in the way we manage the forests and the way we create the products we need.

Forest Collaboration

The word “collaboration” is used a great deal these days. If you find yourself in the world of forest management or the US Forest Service, it’s everywhere. So what does it mean how does it work?

The Oxford Dictionary says that collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. It also says that collaboration can mean traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but for our purposes we’re attempting to operate under the first definition. Simply put, community members, organizations, and other interested parties come together to discuss what is taking place within the forest, specifically the local National Forest. Once a collaborative group is formed, the basic foundation of meetings revolves around land management decisions, which often pertain to local Forest Service lands. This is a good way to coordinate comments from a large segment of the interested and informed public.

So why is collaboration so important? It’s important because the Forest Service needs a way to effectively and systematically communicate with the public and relevant organizations. In the past, the Forest Service would ask the public to comment on a proposed action they wanted to perform. When feedback was collected, conflicting opinions from various groups resulted in ambiguity on what the Forest Service should do. Ultimately, the Forest Service team was tasked with interpreting mixed feedback and making adjustments to proposed projects. In many cases, adjustments were not satisfactory to the groups and individuals commenting on proposals. Unfortunately, this resulted in objections to projects, and in some cases, lawsuits were filed against the Forest Service in attempt to bring projects to a halt. This process was unproductive and frustrating. With collaboration, groups and people from the public with conflicting views are able to meet prior to commenting on Forest Service proposals. This is where they can discuss and settle on what actions they would like to see performed. This allows progress and appeases all parties involved.

A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.
A group of Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition members start out of a field trip for a prospective project.

In 2003, the Healthy Forest Restoration Act formally paved the way for the use of collaboration. Some groups were already formed, but most groups were still in their infancies. It may have been most important to gain the support of the Forest Service. As a federal organization that had been highly scrutinized, their level of trust with the forest industry, the environmental groups, and every group in between was at an all-time low. These groups needed legitimacy and the Forest Service needed direction. Collaboration became the light at the end of a long tunnel.

Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project
Collaborative discussions about an upcoming project

Collaboration is a long-term commitment that requires trust, dedication and an understanding that there are no quick fixes. After all, these are forests and they require generational thinking and planning. The first step in collaboration is forming the collaborative group, or coalition. Usually in a given National Forest there exists a core group that already works on forest issues. In the case of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the founding group members were Duane Vaagen, second generation owner and president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber and Tim Coleman, founding member and Executive Director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group. The two individuals were on opposing ends of the Timber Wards in the 80’s and 90’s, but chose to convene to determine if there was a willingness to communicate. In 2002 they formed what has become the strong coalition that exists today. Fast forward to 2016 and this group, which has a functioning board and the support of many local businesses, community leaders and elected officials, has successfully collaborated on nearly 40 projects on the Colville National Forest. This coalition is not alone, and there are groups with similar stories and varying levels of success throughout the inter-mountain west.

Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussion future action
Another shot of the group looking at trees and discussing future action

These groups meet, develop trusting relationships, and establish ground rules and guidelines in order to help the Forest Service identify and manage landscapes. There are still naysayers. Some even believe that collaboration only means traitorous cooperation with an enemy, but the groups still move forward. These groups and their members are hopeful that collaboration starts to work as a funnel for comments and concerns for the collective interest of the forest. Resolving issues ahead of time and working with the Forest Service professionals helps ensure projects have a high degree of success. Each successful project leads to better outcomes and a smoother decision-making process. History will decide whether collaboration is a great success or not, but after having been involved with Forest Service collaboration for 14 years it is my opinion that we’re on the verge of making lasting changes that future generations will be proud of and grateful for.

Carbon Footprint

With fires burning larger each and every year, its easy to chalk it up to “Climate change” or “Global Warming”. What if its not only an indicator of a changing climate, but a serious contributor?  Last year in Washington State we had approximately 1 million acres burn in a variety of intensities that included scrub brush, grass and more notably forests.

It’s been reported that the smoke from those fires were the second leading contributor to carbon pollution in the state behind the transportation sector.  It’s also been said that only 1/3 of the carbon is released in a fire that is stored in the trees.  If that’s the case, forest fires will be far and away the largest contributor to carbon pollution in our state as well as other western forests that burn.

So what’s the solution?  Actually we already have much of it figured out.  We just aren’t doing a very good job telling the story.  In Northeast Washington we’ve been collaborating with conservation groups and forest companies to thin the forest.  We call it restoration work.  This is where we removed the small and medium sized trees in order to leave a healthy forest.  What is a healthy forest?  It’s a forest where the trees have the room to grow to their potential.  They have the nutrients, water, sunlight, and space to be healthy.  Pretty simple.

The other thing this space does is provide less fuel for the fires.  That’s why we also call these activity fuels reduction projects.  When lightning strikes in the heart of the summer and it starts a fire, it allows fire fighters the opportunity to safely manage the wildfire.  And if the fire stays on the forest floor it actually has a cleaning affect that’s beneficial for the forest.

The by product of this activity is lumber.  That’s right.  Two by fours and two by six’s.  They can make all kinds of products from small projects on your deck to entire homes, and in the case of glulam beams and cross laminated timber; entire buildings.  All the while helping solve the carbon pollution issue.  Doesn’t it make sense to help make our forests healthy while making products that we can all use?

Managing our forest responsibly reduces fires, thus reducing our carbon footprint at the macro level.