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January 9, 2017 | last updated January 9, 2017 6:32 am
Inside the Notebook

Can Maine take advantage of the new ‘Age of Timber’?

I recently gave up a Saturday to attend the Wood Innovators Conference at the former Thomas Hammond & Son lumber mill in Hiram, which is re-purposing itself as a business incubator in that beautiful corner of western Maine. I was invited by Lee Burnett, one of the organizers, who promised the conference would provide me with lots of story ideas about some of the promising developments emerging from the Maine woods today.

He was true to his word.

I came away from the conference with a notebook full of story possibilities — with one speaker, the London architect Anthony Thistleton, making his way into my Nov. 28 story "Plywood on steroids," which details how the emerging innovation of cross-laminated timber and other "mass timber" products holds a lot of promise for Maine.

During Thistleton's slide show presentation about how a nine-story 29-unit building in London designed by his firm was erected in just 27 days with four workers and a crane, when he noted matter-of-factly the CLT came from Austria, I penciled in the margin of my notes: "Why not Maine?"

That same question clearly was at the core of several panel discussions about CLT and other types of mass timber products that took place at the Maine Forest Products Council's annual meeting that I attended in Orono in September. From those discussions I learned there's more to CLT than simply its labor- and time-saving benefits in erecting tall buildings. For one thing, it's intrinsically beautiful, as Ricky McLain, technical director of WoodWorks, pointed out in his slide show talk at the council's annual meeting featuring several mass timber buildings now under construction.

But the clincher argument, for me, comes from Casey Malmquist, a presenter at the council's annual meeting who happens to be president and founder of Montana-based SmartLam, one of only two manufacturers of cross-laminated timber in the United States.

Malmquist makes a convincing case that mass timber — which has a significantly lower carbon footprint than steel or concrete — deserves greater attention in this era of global warming.

"If you put the best scientists together and got them to imagine and come up with the perfect building material, what would that be?" he asked.

In working his way towards the answer, Malmquist said any construction material first and foremost needs to be structurally strong. It also should be beautiful

Environmentally, it should be sustainable, renewable, energy efficient and require as little energy as possible to make. And, of course, it would have to be safe and meet all the requirements intended for it by being fire resistant, organic, non-volatile and resilient if subjected to an earthquake.

Malmquist concluded: "I think what's interesting is that if we worked really hard to invent something that accomplished all of those goals, we'd find out it's wood."

If the 21st Century becomes the "Age of Timber" for the construction of high-rise buildings, as Anthony Thistleton believes will happen, Maine should be at the forefront of making the engineered mass timber components that will be needed to erect those buildings. We've got 17 million acres of trees growing here in Maine, with more than half of that acreage being certified as meeting sustainable forestry standards. Maine's spruce, fir and pines store CO2, both as trees and when they're engineered to become beams, columns, walls and floors.

That's a strong selling point for mass timber, one that Maine is uniquely positioned to capitalize on.

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