Innovation and Sustainability in Kentucky’s Forests

Despite the ecological and economic advantages of using cross laminated timber (CLT) products, the North American building industry has been slow to adopt this emerging architectural component. As cross-laminated timber is emerging across portions of the US, this region is far behind despite the abundance of forest resources and the economic benefits that would be achieved by producing a developing building component.

Chad Niman, forest products specialist with the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, is teaming with Swetnam and Mariantonieta Gutierrez Soto in the Colleges of Design and Engineering, respectively, to test the viability of cross-laminated panels constructed from underutilized hardwood species in Kentucky’s woodlands. A recent mass timber symposium they organized brought together 80 engineers, forest industry professionals, architects, economists, political leaders, landowners and entrepreneurs from around the Appalachian region and as far west as Oregon.

This project was funded by the Sustainability Challenge Grant, a collaborative effort between the President’s Sustainability Advisory Committee, the Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment, and the Office of Sustainability, and the Student Sustainability Council.

The participants discussed whether production and use of mass timber in Appalachia would be viable, examining the opportunities and challenges revolving around the introduction of that technology. The UK team is very interested in sustaining Kentucky’s woodlands while introducing new economic opportunities to the region. Niman, working in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, is laser-focused on developing healthier, sustainable forests. One way is to find a use for undervalued trees.

The idea is to use these underused species sustainably with forest management planning.

“We believe if we can target several of these underutilized species and try to provide better markets for them, then we can incentivize forest management a little bit more,” he said.

Currently the pulp and paper markets use these types of wood, but Niman said material used that way is converted into a short-term product, so it doesn’t have mass timber’s benefits.

“There’s the carbon storage aspect to it, where we try to find practical, large approaches that can reduce climate change or at least be able to reduce carbon that’s being emitted. That’s where construction has such a huge potential to store carbon while building the wooden structures we need for offices, education and housing. For those types of things that our society needs, we can use local resources,” he said. “The ultimate goal would be to have this be a material that could be produced locally.”

A lot of folks think of sycamore, sweetgum and red maple as low-quality wood. We have a lot of these trees, and the types of uses they go into now are things like railroad ties from the sweetgum and barn siding and pallets from sycamore. Often, mature trees are left in the woods, which can hinder growth and competition of younger trees. We make fewer products with these species, even though they’re very strong, and they have a very nice appearance,”

Chad Niman

Leveraging a diverse team across multiple disciplines at the University of Kentucky, this team aimed to stimulate the production and adoption of CLTs by hosting a symposium, partnering with students to design and build a structure to house a new campus sawmill, and using the grant funds as startup money to catalyze further research!

Carlie Laughlin

Carlie Laughlin is a Faculty Programs Coordinator with the Office of Sustainability. She is also a graduate student pursuing her degree in Applied Environmental and Sustainability Studies.

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