Bill could boost mass timber products in federal projects

Tiempos de Rogue Valley

A bipartisan bill would promote the use of mass timber in federal building projects and military construction, which could create jobs, reduce wildfire risk and promote forest health.

Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., announced the introduction of the legislation on April 17.

“With the Mass Timber Federal Buildings Act, Idaho timber would be a prioritized construction material in federal buildings. This will open opportunities for Idaho’s timber industry and ensure our government offices are built with the best of the best,” Risch said in a news release.

“Mass timber from right here in Oregon is already a key piece of the puzzle to solving our nation’s affordable housing crisis and tackling climate chaos,” Merkley said.

The legislation is endorsed by the American Wood Council, Sustainable Northwest, American Forest Resource Council, Forest Landowners Association, National Alliance of Forest Owners, Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association, Weyerhaeuser, Freres Engineered Wood and the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition.

Mass timber refers to construction materials in commercial buildings made out of wood, rather than steel or concrete.

Large panels and columns are created by using multiple solid wood pieces.

The first mass timber buildings were constructed in Europe in the 1990s.

Bringing back rural jobs

Tyler Freres, vice president of sales for Freres Engineered Wood in Lyons, said the bill could be a game-changer for the timber industry that puts people back to work in rural communities.

“Over the last four months, we’ve seen six mills close in the Pacific Northwest with the loss of hundreds of jobs,” he added.

Mass timber could revolutionize the building industry by providing an efficient, renewable alternative to concrete and steel construction, Freres said.

Smaller diameter trees from wildfire preventive thinning projects didn’t hold value for the industry in the past. Now they can be used for mass timber products.

“It really ties these buildings of the future with the restoration of our national forests,” he said.

Ramping up production

Iain Macdonald, director of the Tallwood Design Institute, a collaboration between Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, said the bill could result in production capacities ramping up.

That will encourage additional investments, create economies of scale and push price points down for domestic mass timber.

In turn, confidence in and mainstream acceptance of the products will grow.

Prioritizing domestic mass timber is key, Macdonald said. “If we just incentivize using more mass timber generally, there’s a danger of building a market for European competitors, who currently have a price advantage,” Macdonald added.

American mass timber products currently cost 10% to 15% more than the more mature foreign markets.

The bill also will make mass timber more competitive with more conventional construction materials, Macdonald said.

Other countries are trying to promote their wood products and spur innovations in similar fashion to the Risch-Merkley proposal.

“There’s kind of a race to do this around the world right now, and I think this is excellent timing. We really need to get to that point of global competitiveness,” Macdonald said.