Mass timber offers solutions for forest fires, housing crisis

Mass timber starts with some of the smallest trees in our local forests, which are bonded together to create massive wood panels that go together like LEGO.

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — Deep in an industrial area of Spokane Valley, you might be surprised to find a modern two-story house, complete with a rooftop deck. Seemingly dropped from the sky, into a neighborhood of warehouses and factories, this house could be a key to help reduce wildfire risk and address a growing housing crisis.

To best explain how this house got here, and the promise it holds, we need to start with the forest. It’s here, that the Washington State Department of Natural Resources is doing work to reduce wildfire hazards as part of its Forest Health Strategic Plan. This includes thinning and prescribed burns to help clean the forest floor.

Bigger trees can be sold to lumber mills, but until recently, the cost of removing smaller pieces of wood, about 8-12 inches in diameter, was expensive, limiting the amount of forest clean-up work the state could do.

“We never had somebody who could buy that smaller diameter, and therefore we couldn’t sell it,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz explained. “And when you can’t sell it, it either rots on the forest floor or gets burned, and creates an environmental challenge for us.”

Enter mass timber. Mercer Mass Timber in Spokane Valley is one of two mass timber facilities in Washington. Their existence offers the state a new revenue source for that smaller-diameter wood as it seeks to clean up forests and prevent wildfires.

Mass Timber refers to large wood products. Mercer Mass Timber specializes in cross-laminate timber or CLT. The process allows the company to make use of shorter boards, which it bonds together to create massive 60-foot-long wood panels.

The panels are then cut to fit together. High-tech saws cut the panels not only to length and width but cut out holes for everything from windows to outlets. The pieces are then assembled in a process similar to putting together a package of LEGO.

Credit: Green Canopy NODE

And that brings us back to that house. Standing just outside the factory doors stands an example of how mass timber could help the state’s housing crisis.

Seattle-based developer, Green Canopy NODE, worked with Mercer to build the test house. The company says it came together 49% faster than a typical build, a significant time-savings in a region starved for more housing.

“What we’re trying to do is, actually, eke out efficiencies in every element of the process, from factory to the field, so that we can build more affordably and significantly faster,” said Darrin Griechen, Vice President of Products + Technology at Green Canopy NODE. “It’s all pre-planned, pre-engineered, and it’s just assembling the thing. So it makes it much simpler.”

The company will take what it learned from this build and use it on future projects that are planned to go up in Seattle and Portland next year.

“We’re in the state of Washington, we can fly things, the size of buildings through the air, we need to apply that mentality to helping to solve our housing crisis,” said Todd Beyreuther, Director of Product at Mercer Mass Timber.

For DNR, more mass timber projects could provide the state with some revenue while it completes forest health projects. That money can then be reinvested into more projects that should help lower the risk of wildfires.

“Now we’ve been able to take that environmental challenge of dying, dead, diseased trees that burn into the atmosphere and turn it into a wood product that actually can make our built environment cleaner and greener. And it also can help, sort of, truly build at a faster pace and scale the kinds of homes that we need to address our housing crisis,” Franz said. "This puts them all together as one solution, environmental, social, and economic solution.”