Timber Town 911: Could wooden skyscrapers spark a revival?

Washington's timber industry has been in decline for the last two decades, but now an unlikely use of timber could spark a revival. A new product aims to build skylines cheaper and faster while bringing new jobs to struggling timber towns.

Daybreak in Forks begins with the roar of chainsaws bringing down trees with a thunderous crash. On private timberlands about 14 miles from La Push Road, a slow-winding drive down a gravel path reveals a glimpse of why the town, at least at one time, claimed the title “Logging Capital of the World.”

“This is back in the days when trees were trees,” said Dana Cross, who comes from a proud logging family.

“That’s my dad,” he points to pictures in an old photo album. “He worked every day until he got hurt.”

Cross landed a good job at a saw mill making about $20 an hour with a high school diploma. But in Forks, as well, as many rural Washington towns, the town has been in decline along with the state’s timber industry.  

Three years ago two mills – Interfor and Allens – shut down within one year of each other. The closures caused an employment crisis: 80 percent of the town’s manufacturing jobs were wiped out.

“I was bummed out. It was something I'd done for close to 20 years at the Interfor mill and to be basically thrown out,” said Cross, who has dealt months of unemployment and working odd jobs.

“We’re sort of at that point in Western Washington: Where do we go from here?” Mayor Bryon Monohon said.

The Forks town leader has an idea: tap the forest in a high-tech way and make cross-laminated timber (CLT), also known as Lego timber.

Workers take planks of wood – usually 2x6s or 2x8s layered cross-wise, glued together and pressed – and fit them together like a toy kit.

The result: an environmentally-friendly solid-wood structure experts say is as strong as steel.

Total build time for CLT buildings is reduced by about 20 percent as compared to traditional stick frame building, according to a study by the University of Utah. Construction is about four percent cheaper because fewer construction workers are required; however, study authors say the buildings save significantly more by bringing buildings to market quicker.    

Monohon believes CLT could be the ultimate bridge between rural and urban Washington: using timber harvested from forests surrounding small towns like Forks to build skyscrapers, housing, and schools in cities like Seattle, but building them faster and cheaper.

Maple Elementary is one of three schools in Western Washington being built with CLT from Oregon. Schools in Sequim and Mount Vernon were also part of a $5 million state pilot project to deal with classroom overcrowding.  

In Fall of 2016, the University of British Columbia used CLT panels to build a dorm. It took nine workers to install the framework for an 18-story building, and they did it in about two-and-a-half months. A traditional approach would have taken up to twice as long and cost up to twice as much to install, according to naturally: wood, a group under British Columbia’s Forestry Innovation Investment to promote the province’s timber resources.

Oregon has also put in hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote CLT, including teaming with Oregon State University to implement a program to train students to build and design with the new product.

“I haven’t heard anything about CLT coming here at all,” Erin Weakley said.

The Forks mother of two also worked at Interfor, which transferred her to Port Angeles. Weakley says she is happy to have a job, but the drive adds an extra two hours a day away from her children.

“They’re always calling me or texting me: Mom, when are you going to be home? When are you going to be home?” Weakley said while driving past her old place of employment.

Interfor still has the lease on the business park in Forks; however, the warehouse is deserted.

“It’s sad to see it gone but hopefully we get something else,” Weakley said.

Some think that ‘something else’ is CLT. Mayor Monohon thinks a CLT plant could slide right into the old mill site.

“I can see just building some really neat CLT buildings in Seattle and having folks from Forks drive over and say well; those panels came from us. We were part of that,” Monohon said.

The holdup is the town is still looking for cash – about $20 million for a new plant.

Investors say though demand for CLT is growing, the market is untested: building codes do not allow for wooden high-rises, and they do not know if old timber towns such as Forks will have the “knowledge workers” willing to take on the new product.

CLT is considered high-tech wood.

“It’s been a learning ladder,” Valerie Johnson said, explaining CLT involves working with architects, designers, and builders to make the building process efficient.

Johnson is the co-owner of D.R. Johnson Lumber, the first certified CLT producer in the United States. Her father started the mill and glulam company in 1951.

“Dad was conservative and adventurous. We just think if he saw this as one of the next potentially big products for wood that he would have been all in,” Johnson said.

So far, D.R. Johnson’s CLT production has been a success. Johnson says the company is planning on adding a second CLT press and potentially hiring 30 more people.

“We're already seeing triple, quadruple the demand that we had even a year ago,” Johnson said. “We do feel there is a big shift coming and we're sort of on the cutting edge, the leading edge of it.”

Portland recently granted a permit for a 12-story CLT building called Framework, which will break ground in the fall. When completed, it will be the tallest mass timber building in the country to date.

Last year, the city became home to the first CLT office building, a four-story building in the hipster haven of the Northeast.

Washington is a few years behind. An Eastern Washington mill called Vaagen Brothers Lumber is currently securing financing for a CLT plant, which is expected to be operational in late 2018.

As for the folks in Forks, they are not ready to give up on an opportunity that could keep people in town.

“I would like to see it happen. It would give a lot of people a chance to get back to work in this area,” Cross said.

However, for someone like Dana Cross, who has been let go and let down by the timber industry in the past, there may be no going back. He now works in corrections and says the prison system has been good to him thus far.

Plus, Cross says “all that computerized stuff is like pfffttt."

© 2017 KING-TV


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