Last May, the US Forest Service announced the 2019 Wood Innovation Grant (WIG) recipients. A total $8.9 million was awarded to 41 projects in 20 states. Nearly half of the funds were awarded to projects aiming to further mass timber innovation, including technologies like cross laminated timber (CLT). Most of the mass timber projects are focused on innovative building design or documenting performance properties including acoustics and vibration, seismic loads, environmental impact, and fire performance of exposed material.
Clearly, the Forest Service views mass timber as an innovative wood product worthy of investment. The Beck Group reached out to the Melissa Jenkins, Innovation Manager, Wood Innovations, US Forest Service, to learn more about the WIG program’s focus on mass timber.
BECK: What is the WIG Program?
USFS: The US Forest Service’s Wood Innovation Grant (WIG) Program supports activities that to substantially expand and accelerate wood products markets and wood energy markets throughout the United States to support forest management needs on National Forest System and other forest lands. This program focuses on our Wood Innovations goals:
- Reduce hazardous fuels and improve forest health on National Forest System and other forest lands.
- Reduce the costs of forest management on all land types.
- Promote economic and environmental health of communities. This funding supports traditional wood utilization projects, expands wood energy markets, and promotes using wood as a construction material in commercial buildings. The program helps create new opportunities for innovative wood products which contribute to diversified rural economies and support sustainable forest management.
BECK: How long has the WIG program been in existence?
USFS: The WIG program has been in its current form since 2015. Before that time there was a similar grant program but it was more heavily focused on assisting wood energy development. In 2014, the Forest Service rebranded their program to Wood Innovations, restructured the grant program to include wood products in addition to wood energy, and proposed the 2015 Tall Wood Building Prize Competition.
BECK: How many mass timber projects have been funded to date?
USFS: Since 2015 a total of 70 WIG mass timber projects have been funded. As shown in the following table, in each successive year of the program an increasing number of mass timber projects have been funded.
BECK: Why has mass timber been a focus area for this grant program?
USFS: One reason is that the WIG precursor, the Wood to Energy grant program, needed to evolve. Our research identified mass timber as a market with the potential for huge growth and concluded mass timber offers a triple win because it can:
- Use material from hazardous fuel treatments—as demonstrated in Europe, it’s a technology that can utilize smaller diameter timber, which matches a key Forest Service objective.
- Support rural economic development—not surprisingly, trees are abundant in rural areas and creating businesses to process those trees into products like mass timber can sustain and boost rural economies.
- Enhance sustainability in commercial construction—wood is a less carbon intensive building material than steel or concrete. To the extent wood is a substitute for those building materials there is less environmental carbon impact arising from building construction.
BECK: What results have the US Forest Service seen from the mass timber investments made to date?
USFS: We have been pleased with the results of our WIG program and also our Wood Innovations national investments. Our WIG funding directly supported the initial planning stages (which ultimately led to construction) of mass timber buildings including a dormitory at the University of Arkansas, a sports arena at the University of Idaho, and the current tallest mass timber building in the US: Carbon12 in Portland, Oregon. At the time Carbon12 was being designed, building codes had not been adjusted for use of tall mass timber. Our funds helped the owner, developer, and architect navigate code variances using an alternate means process to go beyond the prescriptive code limits. WIG funding supported a Pacific Northwest raw material supply chain study, which informed a new mass timber manufacturing facility currently under construction.
Additionally, our grant funding allowed for testing showing that buildings made from mass timber are highly resistant to explosive forces. Those blast resistance test results contributed to the US Department of Defense adopting mass timber as a building construction material for certain building types on military bases. We do invest in activities outside of our grants funding and consider those activities national investment. We think of these activities as catalytic in nature, spurring additional market development well beyond the funding we put in. An example of a national investment includes providing seed funding for the first International Mass Timber Conference in 2016. The conference has been held every year since and attendance in 2019 was more than 1,600 including people from 28 countries.
BECK: Will mass timber remain a priority in the future?
USFS: Building codes were recently further updated to allow for even taller mass timber buildings in the US. Also, the 2018 Farm Bill authorized further research and development and market development related to mass timber. We interpret these milestones as signals to continue the Wood Innovations Program’s focus on mass timber. Additionally, we’ve identified that as momentum for mass timber builds, there is also a tremendous need for education. Raw material suppliers, mass timber manufacturers, architects, engineers, builders, developers, and financiers all need training and education to more efficiently adopt this technology. Given the signals we interpret as continued mass timber momentum and the identified education need, we plan to continue funding mass timber projects through the Wood Innovations Grant for the foreseeable future—so long as funds are appropriated.