Build It With Wood

New study on building with wood and global climate change has New England regional implications, part 2

Feb. 28, 2020
RISD dorm made with CLT Rhode Island School of Design’s North Hall, the first cross-laminated timber-steel hybrid residence hall in New England. Photo by John Horner, courtesy of RISD.

By Robert Perschel, Executive Director, New England Forestry Foundation, and R. Alec Giffen, Senior Science and Policy Fellow, Clean Air Task Force. Photo by John Horner, courtesy of Rhode Island School of Design.

In Part 1 of this blog, we reviewed new research from Churkina et al. (2020) that provides further evidence of the significant climate benefits that could result from an increased use of wood in building construction. Here we look into the in-forest consequences of actively managing New England’s forests for wood, something the New England Forestry Foundation and Clean Air Task Force can comment on authoritatively.

These two organizations have been working as partners to analyze the potential effects of improved forest management in New England forests, which started by codifying NEFF’s 76 years of forest management experience and the two organizations’ expertise in forestry into a set of climate-smart forestry practices called Exemplary Forestry standards.

NEFF and CATF support these approaches for northern New England forests, and the standards aim to ensure that in-forest carbon storage is increased during the next 30 years. The partners also analyzed how much additional carbon dioxide could be removed from the atmosphere and stored in trees if these forest practices were applied across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The impact is significant: Just in northern New England we could store an additional 1.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide in the forest—the carbon equivalent of taking every vehicle in New England off the road for more than 20 years. This potential was recently featured in a New York Times op-ed:

A major challenge in achieving the increased stocking contemplated by Exemplary Forestry (for example, in northwestern Maine increasing stocking of trees from an average of approximately 17 to approximately 25 cords per acre) is the need to simultaneously maintain the supply of timber to meet demand for construction materials, particularly as climate-driven policy initiatives look for climate-supportive building materials. Meeting demand for wood products and simultaneously increasing stocking will require both increasing productivity and shifting demand to stands where that carbon might be lost in any case, e.g., thinning stands where many of the trees will soon die anyway.

NEFF has received grant support to research the next step—how to combine the three areas of carbon savings in one hypothetical scenario, the creation of a five-story wood building in Boston from sustainably managed woodlands in western Massachusetts. This will allow policy makers to consider the full suite of benefits from mass timber construction. Over time, the plan is to extend this research by identifying Exemplary Forestry standards for all New England forest types, calculating the wood building potential in New England urban areas, and modeling the overall climate mitigation effect from improved management of New England forests and building with wood in urban areas. This work is directed toward testing the potential right here in New England for applying the global case made by Burkina et al. (2020).

NEFF’s analyses show that improved forest management can increase growth in the forest two-fold over current rates (see Giffen, et al. 2014). Further, consistent with efforts to mitigate climate change, our best timber productivity comes from heavily stocked forest stands that store more carbon than is typical in the region.

This historical knowledge of how forests respond to exemplary management gives us confidence New England forests could produce the material necessary for a revolution in urban construction while increasing carbon storage in the forest as well. With the cooperation of landowners, foresters, mill owners, architects, builders and policy makers, we can find a Forest-to-Cities solution and make a major contribution to fighting damaging climate change right here in New England.

Return to Part 1 of this blog post.

Photo caption: Rhode Island School of Design’s North Hall, the first cross-laminated timber-steel hybrid residence hall in New England.