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Sustainable mass timber industry evolving at MSU with potential to enhance Michigan’s economy

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Crain’s Detroit Business has named Sandra Lupien, director of MassTimber@MSU, to its inaugural “Notable Leaders in Sustainability” list.

“It was nice to be included,” says Lupien. “I recognized a lot of names on there and some folks whose work I've been following for years.

“Mass Timber is an umbrella term for a variety of engineered wood building construction materials. And typically, these are panelized materials and they're really large. Imagine a big beam made of layers of 2x4s laminated together in the shape of a steel I-beam so that you could use that instead of a steel I-beam in a large building. Or imagine a large panel, like a wall or a floor that's made of layers of 2x4s or 2x6s in opposing layers, stacked in layers that are in the opposite direction of one another. That's called cross-laminated timber. And you can drop that in to create a wall or a floor. So, these are big materials that are typically used in larger buildings.”

Why is Mass Timber a good fit for construction, like at the MSU STEM Teaching and Learning Facility that uses it extensively and has won many awards?

“The Michigan State University STEM Teaching and Learning facility opened in July, and it's the first building in Michigan to use mass timber for its structural system. The STEM Facility uses two types of mass timber. One is glue-laminated timber. Those are typically beams and columns. People who like buildings and know buildings will know that glue-laminated timber columns and beams aren't really new. They've been in use for a few decades here in the United States. And the building also uses cross-laminated timber, which are those big panels that I was talking about. And that's a newer technology that's just starting to emerge in North America.

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Sandra Lupien

“People are excited about mass timber for a variety of reasons, but the main driver behind the interest is the sustainability benefits of building with big wood in combination in hybrid models like we did in the STEM Facility with materials like steel or concrete, which are more historically or typically used in large buildings.

“Mass timber is great because to produce mass timber and transport mass timber typically emits less carbon than other types of building materials. Wood is a renewable material; it's a renewable resource. You're not using a finite resource. So, that's a more sustainable way of building as well. But the thing that I think is powerful about mass timber in addition to those features is how trees work. In a forest, trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. They take in that carbon dioxide. As we know, they emit oxygen, which we breathe. But they take in that carbon dioxide as gas and then they store it in their trunks, in their branches, in their roots, and ultimately, in the soil as carbon.

“While that carbon is stored in the trees, it's not being emitted into the atmosphere. We know that carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere warms the atmosphere contributing to global climate change. There are many other types of greenhouse gases that also contribute to climate change. Methane being one that we hear a lot about as well. And methane is admitted by trees when they are dying and decomposing in the forest. So, when you have trees storing carbon in the forest, that's a very important benefit of forests. It helps to contain that carbon by either delaying it or preventing it from going back in the atmosphere at a rapid pace, which is what we want to avoid to curb climate emissions.

“When you cut a tree and you use it in a long-lived durable product like mass timber, which can last for 50, 100, 150 years in a building, you're storing a significant amount of carbon that tree in the forest has sequestered, absorbed, and stored. You're storing that carbon in the building, further delaying the amount of time before that carbon would go into the atmosphere. So, you're really helping your buildings to become centers of carbon storage. And other materials such as steel and concrete, of course, don't store carbon. They don't have a carbon storage capacity.”

Lupien talks about how MSU is leading in the research and application of mass timber and about how a growing and evolving mass timber industry can impact Michigan’s economy.

“Mass Timber@MSU is funded in large part by Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Both of those agencies are very interested in advancing mass timber in Michigan in large part because they see significant potential opportunities for rural-forested communities to revive some forest economies that have been a little bit tired for many reasons in recent years, maybe creating some new opportunities in milling, some new opportunities in kilning, and, of course, new opportunities in manufacture of mass timber. On the construction side, there's also the opportunity to train new types of builders. This is a different way of building. We can perhaps develop new types of construction jobs. So, there's a lot of potential economic development opportunities associated with this.

“On the manufacturing side, it's important to note that most mass timber in North America is coming from the Pacific Northwest or the Pacific Coast of Canada. Some is coming from Quebec. For example, the mass timber that you'll see if you visit our STEM Teaching and Learning Facility is from black spruce from Quebec. And then some is starting to come from the Southeast United States using yellow pine. The reason for that is that all the mass timber technologies currently certified for use in North America are made from soft wood species like spruce, pine, and fur.

“In Michigan, we have about 20 percent soft wood in our forest but about 80 percent hardwood. That's an interesting opportunity for Michigan to think about. How can we use hardwoods in mass timber in North America? Europe has been using hardwoods in mass timber. Can we do it here? From an engineering and structural standpoint, the answer is yes. It just is a matter of doing the research, development, and product certification to make that happen. Our friends at Michigan Tech University have been doing some exciting research along those lines, developing cross-laminated timber using hardwoods. So, we're watching that very carefully.

“I think it's exciting to see mass timber in person. We have the first example of mass timber construction right here on MSU's campus. For those interested in visiting the STEM Facility here on MSU's campus, please feel free to reach out to me, Sandra Lupien. My email address is lupiensa@msu.edu. And I will be happy to find a time when you or perhaps a group of your colleagues can come and see the building, or we can do an introduction to mass timber presentation. When people see it, they really understand ‘Oh, this is how it works.’ And in addition to the benefits that I mentioned, it's also just very beautiful; it's a nice feeling to be in a building made from wood that's exposed. People love that. The students are really enjoying the building. I think we're going to see more mass timber buildings in Michigan in the coming months and years. And I hope that we'll also realize mass timber manufacturing in Michigan before too long.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.