Whole Trees: Finding real value in forests
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We humans have long had a complicated relationship with forests. Ask most people and they’ll tell you how much they love and want to protect trees – and we tend to wax poetic or nostalgic about unspoiled wilderness, revealing a connection to these ancient places that just can’t be replicated by suburban green space.
But people love progress, too, and when the choice comes down to preserving an old forest or creating jobs and prosperity, forests often become sacrificial lambs.
But what if that eternal choice – between preserving our forests and propping up our GDP – didn’t have to be made at all?
“Forests are giant air- and water-cleaning machines, so more than regulating carbon, more than decreasing energy use, more than any other thing we’re doing and have to do, frankly, would be finding ways to keep our forests.” – Amelia Baxter, Whole Trees
That’s a dream that Amelia Baxter, cofounder and president of the Stoddard, Wis.-based Whole Trees, would like to see become a reality. And the only way to do that in any sort of sustainable way, she says, is to make forests profitable just as they are.
“We have an economic relationship with every natural resource on this earth,” said Baxter. “Either we preserve it, which is a rare instance, or we utilize it in some form or another, and generally forests, because they provide such little economic payback, rarely get honored other than as a preservation area. So with every natural resource out there, it’s important to look at what’s the economic relationship that humans have toward it.
“With forests, the economic relationship is, how can we make money off this land by clear-cutting it? Either we can clear-cut it for agricultural purposes or we can clear-cut it for development, which is even more profitable, but there’s really very few companies capable of looking at a forest and saying, how can we keep this forest and make money off of it?”
In some ways, Whole Trees’ business model is as traditional as they come, and in other ways it represents a radical new approach.
Essentially, the company uses round timber (i.e., whole trees) as a construction material in place of “traditional” components like steel and concrete. The company’s employees can walk a forest and select trees for their structural and design integrity, while also keeping in mind how harvesting the materials will affect the health of the forest. And since these are thinnings, it goes without saying that the overall integrity of the forest is preserved.
That’s step one. After sourcing the materials, the company enters the design phase, outlining design goals, creating a preliminary budget, and working the materials into an overall design before creating final construction documents.
Taking what would otherwise be forest waste and turning it into highly valued construction materials is impressive enough, but Baxter and her cofounder, Roald Gundersen, are not content to smugly rest on their laurels, content that they’re doing their small part for the planet.
They want to take their concept – sourcing forest cullings for use in custom projects – and make it workable for anyone.
“My co-founder, Roald, that’s a real forte of his; he’s managed his own forest here, and he’s been a part of his forest since he was a child,” said Baxter. “He moved here after practicing as an architect on the West Coast for 15 years, and he’s got a rather unique and unscalable way of doing that. He’ll design entire buildings, homes, and commercial spaces based on trees that he’s close to.”
The trick, says Baxter, is finding a way to bottle Gundersen’s expertise so that other interested companies can take advantage of it – and so more forests can be both saved and put to profitable use.
With that in mind, the company has been working with the U.S. Forest Products Lab on making the process scalable through a manufacturing system that sources the timber, grades it, and digitally engineers it.
“What we’re doing now at the Forest Products Lab is coming to understand the visual criteria of a tree and how it relates to structural design values and how we can over time capture that process through digital means,” said Baxter. “It’s like having Roald’s capacity as an architect, engineer, and forester in a digital device – a little more simple and less artistic. …
“As we move forward, we’re developing a manufacturing process that’s kind of largely based on digital analysis that will be something that other forest products companies can license. It won’t really be about us walking forests anymore, it will be more about providing the forest product industry with the ability [to do this].”