Old and new

Innovating for sustainability often means looking at old material in new ways

I am sitting on an A320 Airbus, a thoroughly modern contraption, waiting for takeoff. I’m on my way to attend a board meeting for an organization focused on our collapsing oceans, a thoroughly modern crises of the ancient part of our globe that undergirds terrestrial as well as abyssal life.

When I wish to be elsewhere, I frequently read an essay by Loren Eiseley. Like when on a too-crowded plane that seems contrarily and contentedly adhering to the tarmac.

The essay I am reading at this moment is about the late Cretaceous explosion of angiosperms—flowering plants. In passing, Eiseley observed that sequoias and red woods were abundant when flowering plants were just emerging. His primary intent, though, was to describe how the food value concentrated in seeds made the evolution of humans possible, with our small gut and big, calorie-consuming brains. He concludes his essay with a stop-in-your-tracks evocative sentence:

The weight of a petal has changed the face of the world and made it ours.

I love the profundity of the sentence, but I dwell on his throw away observation that our great Northwest gymnosperm forests—read Doug fir, hemlock and red cedar—trace their lineage to a geologic epoch when flowering plants were newfangled.

Okay. This is a roundabout way to get to the point of my blog entry. But you’re stuck with it as I am stuck flying in something with the diameter of a sequoia trunk to address issues of our modern assault of an ancient, sacred part of our world. Old and new.

Here’s another juxtaposition of old and new. An optimistic one:

Cross laminating small diameter softwood—which are not that different in biological structure from what dominated Cretaceous forests—to make structural panels of contemporary beauty. Ancient material, next-gen application. Cross laminated timber, when harvested right, can help reduce the fuel load that feeds devastating forest fires, offer a new source of jobs for our rural towns and provide a carbon-friendly, efficient building material for our large cities. This potential trifecta is why Forterra hosted a summit on mass timber and CLT several weeks ago to explore the feasibility of bringing to Washington this new application of an immemorially old material.

The CLT summit assembled elected officials, academics, timberland owners, small town representatives, environmentalists, architects, builders and many others. We discussed, debated, planned and kibitzed. Forterra is now distilling what we learned at the summit and preparing a proposed path forward for this state to be a leading, sustainable source of CLT.

Cross laminated timber in Seattle
Architect Susan Jones designed the 1,480 square foot home in Seattle’s Madison Park out of cross-laminated timber.

Being human means living in the old and in the new. Innovating for sustainability often means looking at old material in new ways. CLT is one case in point. We will keep you posted on this hopeful juxtaposition of old and new as we continue to work in partnership with the Summit attendees and many others on this promising, sustainable building material.

We have now taken off and in just 1 hour and 47 minutes will cover 800 miles and land in San Francisco. That’s modern life for you.


Read more about cross laminated timber in our third issue of Ampersand.