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episode # 203

This is What Your Future Home Looks Like with Frank Lowenstein

This repurposed way of building will leaf you speechless! Do we have you stumped? Deputy Director and Chief Conservation Officer of the New England Forestry Foundation, Frank Lowenstein, takes Adam and Matt out on a limb this week to discuss the benefits of wood construction – and this isn’t your grandma’s 70’s walk-up wood construction but a reimagined way forward that is set to transform the way we all live. Turns out concrete construction has been the wrong root! This new wood frame technology means we can build higher and cheaper while saving the planet at the same time. Trust us, it’s time to log in to this sappy episode. Indeed, this might be one of our most poplar hits!

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Episode Summary


Tell us about yourself.

I’ve been working in climate and forest conservation for 30 years. I’m the Chief Conservation

Officer at New England Forestry Foundation, leading out Center for Exemplary Forestry. I look at how forests can help solve the climate crisis. We’ve been around for 75 years to help conserve the forests and ensure the forests are well managed. Those two missions really come together to serve everyone as part of the solution to the climate crisis. I also teach at the Harvard Extension School and Brandeis University.

Have you seen meaningful change over the past 30 years?

Certainly we need to do much more than what we’ve done so far. In BC with the mountain pine beetle outbreaks that have been driven by the warmer winters across the Rocky Mountain region, you’re in many ways ground zero for beginning to see the climate impact in the forests. At the same time, I am optimistic as the discussion is becoming much more sophisticated and the tools for conducting analysis are becoming better. More people are becoming convinced that it is a real issue.

I do a fair amount of fundraising, and 20 years ago when I talked to major donors in New York, many of them were climate skeptics, but now when I speak to the same type of people, they’re not anymore. I’m seeing real shifts in attitude and we’re on the verge of some very real progress.

You were the lead author for an article in the New York Times, “Let’s Fill Our Cities With Taller, Wooden Buildings: Trees are some of our best allies in solving the climate crisis.” Why did you write this article?

We wrote the article because the organizations who came together to write it, New England Forestry Foundation, Harvard Forest, Brandeis University, and Highstead Foundation, have really been doing a lot of work together on what we can do with the forests, and now was the time to summarize that work. A lot of people are concerned about deforestation, and they should be. The fires in the Amazon last summer were triggered by agricultural clearing. The tropical rainforests store a lot of carbon per acre so those losses of forests have a very huge impact on climate change.

But we’re losing forests everywhere, including in Canada and the US. One of the primary ways we’re losing forests here in New England is through dispersed residential development, with people moving to the suburbs or wanting a second home out in the country. Once those forests are cut, and if that forest is turned into a lawn, the potential for carbon storage is greatly reduced. We felt that we needed to call attention to the loss of forests as an issue.

At the same time, we’ve been doing a lot of work on quantifying the benefits of high quality forestry. The basic idea is figuring out how to grow more carbon per acre on our forest lands through the process of forest science, while continuing to harvest wood.

Finally, there’s been this new technology to use wood to build taller buildings that offer huge opportunities to use wood to store carbon in the buildings, and not use as much steel and concrete, that often requires the burning of coal to create. We saw a three-fold climate benefit that had not yet been present in the public eye.

How has wood construction changed in the past three decades, and can you talk about the new technologies?

Starting with the technologies, a fundamental piece has been this new wood product called Cross Laminated Timber. Often referred to as plywood on steroids, you take a bunch of 2x4s, or 2x6s, and you glue them edge to edge creating a large flat surface, then you take another layer of wood, created the same way, and you lay it perpendicular to the first. So you create these strong lines of wood going in different directions, and when you keep adding layers, to make the layers stronger and stronger. You end up with a piece of wood that’s 8-10 feet tall and as much as 60 feet long, and from 7 inches to a foot thick. These panels are enormously strong and solid, and have a lot of carbon that’s stored in the material.

These CLT panels can be used for roofs, walls, or floors, you can build tall buildings just with CLT either by hang the panels to steel frames or even using wooden beam technology. It’s a very adaptable material, but its fundamental strength and fire resistance allows you to build very tall buildings.

Can you talk a little bit about why the creation of concrete and steel can be problematic?

I don’t want to knock them as a technology, but in this era of climate change, they have a problem. In order to make the concrete and steel, it requires heating the raw materials to over 2500 degrees Fahrenheit (1400 Celsius) by burning coal. Right now, the construction of new buildings is about 11% of global carbon emissions that is associated with the creation of steel and concrete. If we could build the same buildings and give the public the same utility, and not raise the cost, and get rid of that 11%, that’s a pretty big win.

How high can we build with this technology? Most of the new construction in downtown Vancouver is between 50 to 60 stories. Is that possible?

It’s theoretically possible. Michael Green, an architect from Vancouver, has done a plan for recreating the Empire State Building out of timber. There’s also a group who’s proposing a 60 story building in Chicago, though I don’t know how that’s progressed. But that’s the outside edge of how people are building. Whereas, the new international building code for 2021, allows up to 18 story wood buildings. The quicker adoption is going to be in the 6 to 18 story range, where we can make this the routine.

Are there any challenges where we’re not quite there yet with the wood building technology?

Not really, no. There’s things you need to do right, for example with how sound can carry in wood buildings. If you’re doing a residential structure you need to include sound breaks. One building I’ve seen did it with a layer of rubber between floors to block the sound. This technology came into Europe in the early 2000s, and we have a decade of them spreading around the world and architects are experimenting and innovating with what we can do with them.

There’s new design possibilities that you just couldn’t do with steel and concrete. They’re environmentally friendly and easy to heat and cool, and the wood’s thermal qualities make it feel warmer overall. It’s hard to come up with a downside to them. Even constructing them is better, where you get less dust and noise when compared to steel and concrete.

What is the challenge with getting the general public on board? Some people have sworn off the old wood frame buildings and are hesitant to go back. How do we change this?

We’ve seen that a lot of the early adopters have been in the hospital and university spaces, including the University of Massachusetts and the University of Rhode Island. We’re seeing the early adopters tend to be groups that want to distinguish themselves and feel pressure from the climate community. I think as the public sees the buildings and how well they work, that will over time it will change perception.

One of the challenges we have with the climate problem is that we’ve delayed action for so long we’re now forced to take aggressive action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in their October 2018 report, said that we have 20 years to get to net-zero emissions. That’s a crazy pace of change. We may need some outreach and education to show the public the benefits of these wood buildings and their suitability more quickly than would happen organically.

For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in the US tested CLT for fire resistance. They found that even with an apartment that experienced “Flashover” (the point at which a room is so hot that everything inside catches on fire instantly), managed to self-extinguish even without sprinklers. This is due to the wood charring on the outside, and the oxygen not getting to the wood underneath.

Are there any systemic challenges in the skilled labour or construction community for working with this material?

I’m not an architect, but my understanding is that these materials are very easy to work with. There was an apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia, where four 9-story towers were built. One they built from CLT, and the others with steel and concrete. The CLT building went up in 27 work days with a crew of four workers. One crane operator, one foreman, and two guys with really big screw guns.

Here in New England we have a backlog of projects due to a shortage of skilled construction workers and of cranes that are capable of lifting concrete panels that are much heavier than CLT. So if you can do it with smaller cranes and with less labour, that’s a real plus here.

Last question, for those who aren’t as tuned in to the climate crisis, can you spell out how holding in carbon can help solve the issues of the crisis?

There’s three carbon benefits to these wood buildings. Firstly, if you’re not building out of concrete and steel, you’re not emitting the carbon you would need to create the materials. Additionally, you’re putting wood into the building and protecting it from the elements. That wood contains carbon, and if you’re managing the forests sustainably, you’re essentially pulling carbon from the atmosphere and putting it to buildings where it can be stored for decades or centuries while we solve the rest of the technology problems. Thirdly, if we can build taller and cheaper, we can increase urban density, helping to eliminate traffic congestion, and save the forests around our cities.

Link to the New York Times Article.

Learn more about Frank Lowenstein.

Watch: Cross Laminated Timber Fire Testing.


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