Portland Press Herald

Commentary: Mass timber makes sense for new building in Maine

Jun. 16, 2023

The Portland Museum of Art is throwing its weight behind a new category of wood product that easy on the environment.

Last week, the Portland Museum of Art was awarded $300,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the PMA Blueprint, our sustainable campus expansion and unification project in collaboration with LEVER Architecture. The investment – part of a larger $43 million allocated by the USDA to organizations that expand innovative uses of wood – acknowledges the PMA’s commitment to using mass timber as the primary building material throughout our project, and is the latest validation of mass timber’s immense potential here in Maine.

We continue to find support, enthusiasm and excitement everywhere we go. This past spring, we had the opportunity to participate in the International Mass Timber Conference in Portland, Oregon. As you may imagine, the museum was the only arts organization among more than 3,000 attendees from 20 countries. Yet we were welcomed with open arms and told time and again that the PMA Blueprint is the bellwether this emerging industry has been waiting for.

It is an exciting, new and sustainable technology that uses large, prefabricated wooden building elements to construct buildings.

One of the key benefits of mass timber construction is its ability to sequester carbon, retaining it in the building rather than being released back into the atmosphere through decomposition or burning. When wood that is used for mass timber construction is obtained from sustainably managed forests, the resulting materials have a much lower life-cycle carbon footprint than steel and concrete, delivering a 26.5% reduction in global warming potential, according to University of Washington researchers.

That is incredibly significant, as the building sector produces an extraordinary 40% of global carbon emissions annually. The most common forms of mass timber include cross-laminated timber, glue-laminated beams, structural round timber and laminated veneer lumber. No matter the type, all mass timber is incredibly strong, climate safe and sustainable.

Maine began laying the groundwork for a cross-laminated timber plant in 2016, but it didn’t materialize. The state eventually saw investment go to the south, with a SmartLam cross-laminated timber plant in Dothan, Alabama, set to become a profitable economic driver in that region.

As a result, throughout our preplanning for our building, we’re working to operationalize the shared desire for a cross-laminated timber plant in Maine and get it to the finish line with our policymakers at all levels, the University of Maine, Indigenous leaders, land owners, forestry advocates, businesses and more.

Why? Because mass timber in Maine just makes sense. We’re the most forested state in the country. With nearly 90% of the land covered in forests, the potential to revitalize and reimagine our state through this innovative industry is real. This is a rare and unique opportunity to bring rural and urban communities, companies and governments together through clean industries that make the world better and support Maine jobs.

The time is now to incentivize mass timber as a go-to building material to maximize long-lasting and positive outcomes for our economies and environment. We are excited to partner with LEVER Architecture and lead by example through our new, landmark building. We need others to embrace regenerative, climate-safe wood products and processes as well.

Together, we can support a better future, one that leads sustainably while fostering the people, communities and industries that could revitalize and reimagine our state and New England as a whole.

Mark Bessire is the Judy and Leonard Lauder director of the Portland Museum of Art.