A STORY OF REGENERATION
ECOLOGY /oikos (house) + logy (the study of): The study of one’s House, the Earth. The study of one’s House, the Family. The study of one’s House, the Wood. The study of one’s House, the Forest.
The grandfather, who had lived through mighty storms of fortune, sought a place of refuge on a high mountain top to locate his towers to broadcast to the world. He found an island not far from his home, and in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped island was a mountain. The mountain rose high above the Salish Sea, and had been a home to the proud Lummi Nation, who had known the mountain as a sacred place. When the grandfather found the land, it was in the middle of a small and beloved Park donated to the State of Washington by the shipping magnate Robert Moran. Leftover land, an almost forgotten perfect square, fit on the side of the mountain like a cubed die, just ready to roll off the mountain. Previously, the land had been owned by an early Orcas immigrant, who logged the land–a clear-cut of the forest. The five-year old girl looked in wonder at it, at how ugly it all was. The trees lay in swags across the land, their greying trunks and fronds decaying and creating a swamp of the land, open and grey, moon-like in its disposition. The grandfather took the girl’s hand, and they walked the moon-like grey paths, and then they knelt together. He showed her the little three-foot high trees, just as tall as she, and they were green and spunky, and growing fast, just like she was. He stood, and picked her up, and cast his hand over the land, and said, “When you grow up, when you are my age, these little trees will be as tall as any forest you have ever seen, and you can harvest them again.” The girl pondered all these things in her heart.
When the girl was not quite her grandfather’s age, she took her children to go and look for the little trees. She looked for the Douglas Fir trees and the Western White Pine trees that the grandfather had planted. They walked through the forest of tall trees. Tall hemlock trees. Tall, and growing very close together. Not very big around, and many of them simply small and not growing much at all, just growing on top of each other, trying to get light and nutrients, but crowding each other out. The trees were dark and thick against one another. The family reached out to a forester and ecologist to ask what had happened to the tall Douglas Fir and tall Western White Pine trees that their grandfather had planted. He explained that some trees grow faster than others, that forestry is not a perfect science, that it is a complex study of growth, competition for light, protection against predators, like hungry deer who prefer some species over others, and that not all trees grow alike. He explained that Washington State’s Tree, the Western Hemlock, grows the fastest of all, is known to be particularly opportunistic, and to often, crowd out other, slower growing trees like the Douglas Fir, who are stronger but slower and also well-liked by the deer. The girl who was now a woman, pondered all these things in her heart.
The forester explained that to care for the forest, and to restore the forest, the forest would have to be thinned. Many of the small, more crowded Hemlock trees would have to be removed, while the Douglas Fir trees would stay. And new Douglas Fir trees and new Western White Pine trees would be planted, spaced far apart, with good light, and good browse protection from hungry deer, so that a new generation of trees would grow on the mountain top, healthier and stronger.
The family did the things that the forester told them they should do. They let the loggers come into their forest, and the loggers cut down the hemlocks all growing closely together, and trimmed their branches, leaving them on the now squinting and light forest floor. The logs, not too terribly large, around 8” to 12”, went down the switchbacks off of the mountain, down through the State Park, down to the ferry landing, onto the ferry to cross the Salish Sea, and to the logging mills in Skagit and Snohomish Counties to be made into 2 x 4s and 2 x 6s and 2 x 8s. And the family replanted the trees, every ten feet or so, so that light and air could help them grow, some 800 trees were planted to grow for many years to come.
Because the trees had been growing on a mountain top, all crowded together, even though they were almost sixty years old, the logs were rather small. Some of them could not be used as high value 2x4 or 2x6s, and some of them went to waste, because lumber could not be cut too close to the edge of the trunk. And some of them had deep knots in them and were not too useful for the big lumber mills. The girl who was now a woman noted that many small trees were left on the forest floor, to turn grey, to turn into slag, and to decay into the forest soil, around the small, green planted trees. And she noted how much the land looked just as it had when her grandfather took her by the hand and walked with her through the land so long ago. The girl who was now a woman, pondered all these things in her heart.
It was at this time, that the woman, who had become an architect, was researching the most sustainable, experimental and thoughtful ways to build a new home for her family. Researching far and wide, she came across some small, humble Austrian homes that her friends had built far away in Europe. They were quiet, with thick wooden walls, small volumes of simple white pine, with hardly any visible structure. They were on the edges of forests and towns, often with blackened exteriors, and small simple openings for light. Reading further, she read Austrian ecologists’ writing about their study of how their planted forests were managed., When you take a tree out of the forest, you plant a tree, or two or three, to replace the one mature tree you harvested, and so you always have a regenerative circle of trees growing, and trees being logged, and trees being built with, and trees being lived with, and trees being planted, planted again, for the circle to continue.
The circular stories kept continuing, as the architect studied how trees and carbon work. The trees in the forests pull in the carbon dioxide, and hold it there, allowing the trees to grow taller, and sequester more carbon dioxide into the wood of the trees, from the branches to the trunk to the roots. When the tree is cut, the roots and branches are left in the forest and slowly decompose, releasing their stored carbon. But the trunk is harvested and cut, and its bark is taken off, and the trunk itself is cut into lumber, still sequestering all that carbon.
When the lumber is laminated together, and made into large, cross laminated-timber panels, the carbon is still there, sequestered into the walls of buildings. And, by using the wood in such large panels, up to 10’ x 60’, it is rather easy to unscrew the connector plates that connect the CLT panels together and reuse the large wooden panels for another project. So, there is a life after the panels’ first use, and the cycle of sequestered carbon keeps growing in the forest in the newly planted trees, and in the buildings in the cities. Even better, if you make tall wood buildings in place of tall concrete or steel buildings, you not only sequester the carbon in the mass timber, but you replace a significant amount of carbon that is emitted in making the steel and the concrete. The difference can be up to 40% savings in carbon emissions for a tall mass timber building versus a tall concrete building. And the woman who was now an architect, pondered all these things in her heart.
THE NEW NORTHWEST WOOD
The new panels were exciting – they could be designed in new ways that the architect loved imagining. Light started to bend around the spaces, with panels that were prefabricated and dropped into place, all precut. And even though the house was designed on a triangular lot, the angles could be cut very precisely, to very exact dimensions. Building with the new material was fast. The panels were delivered in two truckloads that stayed on site for just five hours, and the panels were erected in just twelve crane days. The spaces of the house took shape quickly, and the light began to bend and inhabit the spaces of the house just like they had been designed in the architect’s mind. The house went up quickly, and all sixty-seven prefabricated panels fit into place just like they were supposed to. The panels were made of wood, an ancient material, but prefabricated in a way that was completely new. Technology and nature combined to make a new and regenerative way to use wood from the Pacific Northwest. And the woman who was now an architect was very happy.
LIVING WITH WOOD
The woman and her family moved into the house just as her children were starting high school, and they had four years to enjoy the house together as a family, before the children went out to live their own lives. The house was beautiful and waking up to the light every morning as it grazed the natural pine, spruce and fir panels was very peaceful. In the first couple of years, walking into the house smelled just like walking through a forest in the Pacific Northwest. The house glowed with the sunlight coming through the triple-paned glass windows, and the heat soaked up in the thick walls, wrapped in 6-1/2 inches of mineral wool, so that the cold was kept out all winter, and the house was very light and warm all year. Walking through the house with bare feet, felt like walking on the beach as a kid, or being in a sauna, and it was just as relaxing. The wood was alive—it moved and made noises and changed over the year. It checked and cracked. The sound of the natural wood checking was explosive and loud, like a tree falling in the forest. The color of the wood slightly darkened, even under the light whitewash of the interior sealer that the architect had sealed the wood with. The light arose on one side of the house in the morning, and set on the other side, and plants grew all around the house–from apple trees, to plum trees, to fig trees, to raspberries and tomatoes on the roof. And the woman who was an architect and a mother pondered all these things in her heart and was very happy that she could give these experiences to her family.
After the house was finished, over the next year, on hikes through the woods, the woman collected seeds. Seeds from Western Red Cedar trees in the UW Arboretum, seeds from Douglas Fir trees in the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, seeds from Alaskan Yellow Cedar trees from the University of Washington campus. The seeds collected in the house, and then finally the woman decided to plant the seeds on the rooftop, in a series of planter beds, two foot wide by two feet deep. Over the next two years, the woman grew sixty evergreen trees on the roof of the CLTHouse. After they grew up to be about two feet tall, the woman planted ten trees in a park nearby, gave ten trees to her son’s public high school, and the remaining forty trees she and her family planted on the land of the grandfather, on Christmas Day. The family went out after all of the presents had been unwrapped, and all of the grandchildren and all of the great grandchildren of the grandfather took the little two foot high Western Red Cedar trees and planted them deep into the good soil of the grandfather’s land. The trees are growing now, for the next CLTHouse to be built. And the woman pondered all of these things in her heart and was very happy. •
SUSAN JONES FAIA LEED AP BD+C is an architect who founded her own architectural firm, atelierjones, in downtown Seattle in 2003. She has worked on design-award winning and environmentally-forward projects for her entire 30 year career. A national leader in developing design and progressive codes for mass timber high-rises, Susan published a book in 2018 called Mass Timber | Design and Research, featuring atelierjones’ work with Mass Timber. She is a third-generation Pacific Northwesterner, who grew up in Bellingham and on Orcas Island, and visits her family there.