Creative solutions target the housing and climate crises
What if we could accelerate the use of mass timber, restore forests, create jobs and address the housing crisis in Oregon?
The Oregon Mass Timber Coalition thinks it’s possible. In September 2022, the OMTC was awarded over $41 million by the U.S. Economic Development Build Back Better Regional Challenge, to strengthen Oregon’s national leadership in mass timber, adding new capacity to produce mass timber modular housing.
“The housing crisis in Oregon is severe, with our state ranking 49 out of 50 for housing supply relative to its population,” says Iain Macdonald, director of the TallWood Design Institute at the College of Forestry. “A thriving mass timber industry could help provide affordable housing, while also decreasing the carbon footprint of built environments, improving the resilience of forests and creating living-wage jobs.”
Oregon State University is a key leader in the OMTC, which includes Business Oregon, the Oregon Department of Forestry, and the University of Oregon.
The two universities are spearheading the research for the coalition, including the development of two new facilities: the Oregon Acoustic Research Lab at the University of Oregon, and the Oregon Fire Testing Facility at OSU.
Stewart Professor of Forest Operations Woodam Chung is leading an important pillar of the project. He aims to leverage “smart technology” to modernize the field of forestry.
Chung explains that forestry in the region — and its workforce — has suffered from a lack of innovation, jeopardizing the sector’s sustainability and global competitiveness.
Forestry is also one of the most dangerous job sectors in the country — and has a diminishing and aging workforce.
But, Chung says, “smart forestry” can help shift these trends by modernizing forest practices through innovative technologies that make forestry more efficient and safer — from harvest to mill.
One pilot project Chung will pursue through the grant is the use of smart cameras on harvesting machines. The cameras use data-driven algorithms to detect which trees to harvest in real-time, based on their species, size, straightness and knot sizes. This kind of technology will enable foresters to utilize small-diameter trees for mass timber and maximize the value recovery of forest resources.
“We can apply this system to forest restoration practices, so we can efficiently separate trees that could be utilized for mass timber at harvest. This can improve the efficiency of wood handling and supply,” he says.
He explains that this will also increase fire resilience, as it will help thin dense forests so there is less wildfire fuel left behind. This is important economically, too. Forest restoration is costly, and if the removed fiber can be gainfully used in a commercial mass timber product, the U.S. Forest Service will be able to treat more acres each year.
Chung is also working on landscape mapping, wearable devices to improve health
and safety for workers, and smart sensors.
“This kind of technology is a win for forest health, fire resilience, economic development and the environment,” says Chung.
“We’re looking at all of these interconnected issues holistically and weaving together research projects that can enhance and expand the mass timber industry,” says Macdonald. “It’s an incredible opportunity to drive real change that will result in meaningful improvements to livelihoods and our environment.”
A version of this story appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of Focus on Forestry, the alumni magazine of the Oregon State University College of Forestry.