Interview with Steve Marshall of Mass Timber Strategy
Interview by Tena Petrovic
Steve Marshall has worked for the US Forest Service for 41 years, holding different positions, leading the agency wood innovations team, and helping to introduce mass timber products to the US. Although based in the US, he is familiar with the European mass timber scene as well, having travelled extensively in the last decade. Although recently retired, he is still very active, running a company called Mass Timber Strategy and previously working for a big mass timber manufacturer.
Tena: Initially, I planned to ask you whether, in the US, the slow rate of adoption of mass timber is caused by supply or demand, but you have warned me that this statement doesn’t hold true. You told me that “this transition from where we started has been nothing less than extraordinary”. Can you expand on that?
Steve: Part of it is, until people regularly see mass timber, it won’t be real to them. There’s been an amazing amount of news media coverage, the statistics are publicly available, and yet, for most of us, something isn’t real until we experience it, and most people have not experienced it. We have a lot of things that are favoring the further growth of it, a lot of people now know what embodied carbon is, and that wasn’t true just a few years ago. Similarly, the building code changes in the US were extraordinary. We had states that were pre-adopting the 2021 building code. There was one building I was involved with where the team was concerned that this will be the 1st tall wood building in the state, and they were going in to meet with the lead code official in the city where the state does not have the 2021 code. They wondered how they were going to be received, and this city official was saying “No, no, I’ve been watching this, I understand, I know the people that have approved of this elsewhere. We have a process to go through with the alternate means and methods, but I am ready to work with you”.
Tena: Last May The Forests Dialogue and CSFEP held a Scoping Dialogue on Climate Positive Forest Products, which you co-chaired, and which identified three fracture lines in this space, one of which is "whether increased demand for timber in construction is ultimately good or bad for forests". How do you see this dichotomy, this tension between forests and their associated wood value chains?
Steve: The dialogue we had last year deliberately included people that had very different perspectives on this, to make sure we were learning from each other. My own sense of it is that if you are dealing with a situation where you have a strong governance and support systems around forest management, that there are many situations where the forest harvest can be managed in a way that’s beneficial to the forest. Here in the US up until about a 120 years ago there was a pattern of essentially mining the forest – we would harvest trees, we would not replant them, the land would typically go into a non-forest use (most commonly agriculture but also residential development), so our forests had been shrinking in size. We have been tracking closely for about 70 years our standing timber in the US: it is gone up just under 2% per year every year that that has been tracked. To me that is a signal that you can have both and that they can be mutually supportive, which doesn’t mean you should be harvesting trees everywhere. At the same time, we built a massive portfolio of single-family homes almost entirely with stick frame construction, which resulted with a very robust use of wood, and we got well managed forests for the most part. Now, one of the things that is promising with mass timber is that people that are using it are using it specifically because of its sustainability. That is creating a constituency that wants to assure sustainability, you now have end users that are asking questions about the sourcing of the material…with mass timber where the sector has been so heavily driven by the sustainability dimension, it reinforces the view that we should make sure we do the forest management well.
Tena: How would you ensure that with expected increase in demand for mass timber, we manage and harvest our forests sustainably and smartly, so that mass timber products become a catalyst for improved management practices? For example, as Jerry Franklin once said, a tree is not a sprinter but a long-distance runner, so the only way to fully realize its potential is to grow it for at least 80 or so years. Yet, cutting it at 35 years may sound rational from the economic perspective and needed speed of delivery of homes.
Steve: It’s a mixed story. As a background context - if we doubled our current level of mass timber usage, we would be on the order of using between 1% and 2% of the lumber being used in the US. So it’s not that mass timber will suddenly be driving an enormous change in lumber production. Regarding Jerry Franklin’s observation – we will have to learn our way into that, as right now, if you are trying to optimize a particular area for fiber production you may not hit his most effective moment in a lifespan of a Doug fir. He is right, of course, but what is the best thing that you do - is it that you strive to go all the way to that peak sequestration moment that he is describing, or is it that you do a trade-off and have more frequent harvest but perhaps not have to go as widely out to as many forests as you are managing a smaller portion of the forest a bit more intensely? It’s a trade-off, I wish there was a “right answer” on where that trade-off should be – we as a society have to be making those choices, and the choice we make today may not be the choice that people make 10, 20 years from now.
Tena: CSFEP is strongly advocating for a concept we call a 3S approach, which stands for three forest’s functions, Sink, Storage and Substitution. With all the recent talks about mass timber construction, I feel that the first S, the most upstream part of the chain, often gets overlooked as it lacks the appeal of CLT as a finished, cool looking and aesthetically represented product often found in architecture magazines, that investors can get behind. How do we make sure we think about mass timber systems in a holistic way which would make us automatically connect the timber structure with the forest?
Steve: Yes, I agree that the sink gets overlooked. CLT is new and exciting, and people can experience it in a very direct way, as we live and work in buildings. If you’re using mass timber because it is sustainable, then it opens the door to the question of what is the basis for that sustainability? and understanding that takes you back to the sink. We now can be tracing the wood components back to where they came from, and I suspect we will be doing more of that. Also, right now, most of our production is coming from industrial scale facilities, they are somewhat large, and I wonder if, over time, we might see a mosaic of smaller facilities that are more locally based and using strictly local materials and only selling it to a local market. I think there is an interesting opportunity there and if they do that, then they might be in a particularly strong position to build those linkages between the forest and the end product. I think there is room for both big production facilities and small local facilities.
Tena: Globally, there is a growing demand for more buildings and housing, and much of this new demand will occur in developing countries. How do you see the development of industrialized wood-based construction playing out there, how do we scale there rapidly while meeting social and ecological safeguards?
Steve: If you look at projections of where we are going to need buildings, those countries you are talking about will be a huge part of our future. So it is critically important to build buildings sustainably there, and in order to do this, you need to make sure you have sustainable forests. I think there’s an ample amount of potential in terms of the demand side, so I think we need to be very deliberate about the supply side of the material. Because if you haven’t got integration of sustainable practices from the landscape to the building, ultimately the building is not sustainable. A lot of countries are at different starting places, and there has been reforestation work that’s been taking place around the world and some of it has been pretty dramatic. We need to encourage that, there are people around the world looking at mass timber and we, as people that are already involved in mass timber, have to help them do that and make sure that the focus is on the entire chain.