MASS TIMBER:

REFLECTING ON THE 2023 BIOECONOMY TRADE AND STUDY MISSION TO FINLAND.

ABSTRACT

The Bioeconomy Trade and Study Mission to Finland was an opportunity to enhance U.S.-Finland collaboration in bio-based products, particularly in wood-based bioproducts, through comprehensive exploration and in-person field demonstration at Finnish mills, equipment plants, universities, and governmental entities. While the United States sent delegations from three states to Finland,  this paper focuses on the shared heritage of wood culture between the State of Michigan and Finland, as well as the overall goals for growing a mass timber bio economy in the Great Lakes Region. The Wood Building & CLT subgroup was formed to study mass timber production and economics in Finland, identifying shared challenges – particularly in Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) production. The mission concluded with a workshop designed to establish future collaborative opportunities, emphasizing innovation and sustainability in the global wood-based bioproducts industry. 

 

BACKGROUND

In December 2022, mass timber advocates from across Michigan assembled at the STEM Teaching and Learning Facility on the campus of Michigan State University to participate in a well-curated series of introspective updates on the state of mass timber in Michigan.  

Erik’s notes during Michigan Mass Timber Update 2022 meeting.

This Michigan Mass Timber Update 2022 meeting provided a unique opportunity to collect together a diverse group of natural resource conservationists, code experts, architects, engineers, policy makers, constructors, educators, researchers, and students who have been working diligently in the domain of either mass timber or forest bioproducts.  New relationships unearthed opportunities for collaboration, or in other cases, deepened existing partnerships that have been hard at work fueling the momentum of Michigan’s wood construction industry. One of the partnerships that materialized out of this event was one between INFORM Studio and Michigan State University, where Sandra Lupien, director of Mass Timber @ MSU, introduced me to a research opportunity to learn more about modern approaches to mass timber in Finland.

 

This opportunity became known as the Bioeconomy Trade and Study Mission from The United States to Finland, and was a culmination of roughly three years of planning between three U.S. States: Maine, Michigan, and Washington, along with the Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.  Since then, Finns and Americans have been sharing expertise via “bioeconomy workgroups,” which were organized around state government-backed memorandums of understanding to further deepen the two nations’ collective interests in bio-based products.  In Michigan specifically, collaborative ties are particularly strong.  For one, meteorological character and biodiversity patterns are relatively comparable between the two regions, resulting in Michigan having the largest number of Finnish descendants living in the United States; however, Ulla Lainio, Commercial Counselor in Washington DC for Business Finland and Study Mission Coordinator, pointed out that “the management of forests in Michigan cannot be compared to Finland; thinning is hardly seen and many forests are a natural bush.”  In reality, this assessment rings true for most of North America. In the midst of an era where the effects of forest fires are increasingly felt in our state, the focus is shifting to identifying practices that leverage forests to help alleviate consequences of global climate change and carbon dioxide emissions.  Thus, the U.S. turned to Finland for their expertise on these matters.  

PRE-TRIP PREPARATIONS

While Team Finland’s focus was centered around three main industries during their own pre-pandemic visit to the United States – Automotive Technology (clean mobility and bioenergy), Maritime Logistics (autonomous shipping), and Sustainable Forest Bioeconomics (forestry management and wood building products).  The United States delegation to Finland primarily focused on the wood based bioproducts economy in two main subgroups:

  1. Wood Building & CLT Participants
  2. Forestry Tour Participants 

Prior to the Study Mission, each state was responsible for assembling rosters of delegates to engage in meetings and workshops on Finnish soil in these subgroups.  The eventual result was two bus loads full of forest enthusiasts with a similar cross section of diverse backgrounds and expertise areas as we had in the Michigan Mass Timber Update event.  In fact, this mission was so well-attended that we had to borrow the charter buses from the Finnish national basketball team to fit the unprecedented number of delegates traveling around the country.

Delegates traveled across Finland on Finnish National Basketball team bus.

Our team from Michigan was organized by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Department of Natural Resources, and Michigan State University.  The Finns set a high bar for punctuality & organization during pre-trip preparations, and our Michigan team matched those efforts to produce an extremely ambitious itinerary for both subgroups. 

 

Included in this itinerary and at the end of the Research Mission was a day-long charette-style workshop session at the Business Finland headquarters, where the main goal was to identify several bio-based related research topics to pursue as a collective beyond the time limits of the trip itself.  To generate a range of topic submissions, the U.S. Embassy in Finland awarded grant funds to a select number of delegates wishing to submit proposals and participate in the workshop day. 

RESEARCH PLANING & PROPOSAL DEVELOPMENT

With more of a vested interest in wood as it relates to architecture and the built environment, I independently submitted a proposal titled Accelerating Forest Bioproducts in the AEC Industry: Investigating the potential of digital delivery technologies to promote the expanded use of mass timber in architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), as a primary means to building more climate-healthy environments.  The idea stemmed from the challenges many mass timber projects face during stages of design: being able to swiftly and efficiently work with the mass timber manufacturer to get all the right details, module sizes, and specifications into the project’s digital design space. The stumbling block I have seen, and have come to understand speaking with other industry professionals, is that each manufacturer in North America and most individual design firms have a different standard of digital modeling/drawing review, and when proprietary product meshes with unique design standards, there are, in many instances a great deal of digital redundancy and process overlap that occurs in both efforts in order to end up at one outcome: a comprehensively designed mass timber building that pencils.  

Shop drawings for the cross laminated timber roof deck for the new recreation center project at AB Ford Park (INFORM Studio, KLH)

The workshop proposal sought to identify this bulk and seek efficiencies in collaborative processes through the use of data and technology (BIM standards, digital fabrication, artificial intelligence, and computational design).  While this research prompt is very compelling to me and something that I intend to pursue in parallel with the other studies that came out of the Research Mission, my proposal was ultimately combined with the joint proposal of Sandra Lupien (MSU) and George Berghorn (MSU), who took interest in the broader scope of how mass timber buildings are planned from a lifecycle analysis perspective.  

 

Our joint workshop proposal titled Extending Mass Timber’s Carbon Benefits zoomed out to look at the way we could design mass timber buildings to be deconstructed and re-use wood stock when the building had outlived its occupiable life.  This means understanding systems and connections in greater detail, and reexamining production methods to ensure we are actually making good use of the carbon-capturing properties of wood.

Pikku Finlandia or “Little Finlandia Hall” sits adjacent to Alvar Aalto’s modernist conference center. Designed by Aalto University students and built as a temporary event space while Aalto’s building undergoes construction. The CLT panels, reclaimed Scots Pine columns , and other building elements are planned to be disassembled and rebuilt as an early education building when Finlandia Hall renovations are complete.

It was an honor to have both research proposals accepted and to join as a delegate of the Wood Building & CLT subgroup, and to help pursue findings on how we can design with mass timber better here in America, Michigan specifically.  

 

I also had some personal endeavors to tie up loose ends that were left open from my previous trip to Finland as a graduate student at Lawrence Technological University.  It was there that I had studied and presented on the cultural tradition of building with wood in Finland, so it was exciting for me to have the opportunity to pick up where I had left off and more closely survey the modern mass timber production technologies that Finland has demonstrated in their buildings over the last several decades.

ARRIVAL AND INITIAL OBSERVATIONS

The Wood Building group’s itinerary included 20 locations in 5 days of research, spread out along 1,350km of winding road travel, much of it through the heart of Finland’s prized forest land, rivers, and lakes.  Home base varied between Helsinki and Jyväskylä depending on the day, with programmed dinners capping each day of travel. This allowed the American delegation to network with Finnish constituents and learn about the different business ventures and technologies being developed in the country.

Upon arrival to Finland and getting to meet our hosts, it was interesting to put into perspective the goals that each state laid out at this introductory visit within the context of how Finland currently operates in the mass timber industry. For example, one of Maine’s initiatives for the Research Mission was to identify ways to overcome current barriers to a successfully managed forest sector.  There is a law in Finland that mandates the following: anytime a tree is cut down, four are to be replanted.  Trees in Finland are harvested at 80 years, with forests being thinned at 20 year and 40 year milestones.  We learned that Finland does not really harvest from natural forests anymore; the majority of their natural forest land has been set aside for public recreation and protected parks.  Harvest-eligible trees primarily come from land that has been a part of the 4-for-1 cycle, allowing for an impressively large dataset to report back Finland’s overall forest health in real time.

Forested public land in Harjun Ulkoilupuisto (recreational park), Jyväskylä.

Michigan was not shy in stating their primary goal of attracting a CLT manufacturer to the state.  As a delegate of the State of Michigan who is also an architect studying mass timber and CLT application in the AEC industry, hearing these ambitions was music to my ears; however, knowing of the challenges involved in this feat, I was curious to collect success stories from the different groups we would be visiting over the course of the trip.  What I found was that Finland experienced (and in some cases is still experiencing) many of the same growing pains that the North American mass timber markets are experiencing, and while the challenges aren’t all that different between the two nations, there are some key differentiators that are interesting to note.

FINDING & ANALYSIS: HISTORICAL RELATIONSHIPS

It is helpful to first take a look at the historical trajectory of wood technology in both the United States and Finland, as a means to frame understanding of the differences and similarities in global trends.  After all, European countries are so often referenced by Americans as the precedent for mass timber innovation: “they’ve been doing this forever” is a phrase I hear frequently from folks in domestic mass timber circles. There is much truth to this, but let’s look into the why:

 

Anecdotally, the Finnish perspective consists of some general themes that popped up more than once during dialogue with our host nation.  The vast majority of Finns find their identity as a “forest nation” from ancestral roots, building settlements out of logs and retiring back to the forest each year in celebration of Midsummer.  There is a great amount of respect paid back to the trees with such a stronghold in this identity and the woodworking skills that naturally sprouted out of this heritage.  Another aspect for the Finns – albeit less fortunate – is their relationship with foreign occupation.  After World Wars and conflict with the Soviet Union, Finland was required to pay reparations equating to 500 million USD from 1944 to 1952, primarily sending ships, machines, metal, and wood products to the Soviet Union.  This effectively set up an industrial relationship between the two countries that forced streamlined delivery and expertise in manufacturing. When the cultural attitude surrounding wood as a building material swung back in favor of industrial production, Finland was primed to be one of the world’s top suppliers for sawing, milling, and layup equipment.

Key dates in the development of wood building technology in Finland (top) and the United States (bottom). Note the discrepancy between the periods where mass timber gained popularity

We visited a number of companies that built and supplied wood manufacturing equipment to gain a better understanding of the full lifecycle of mass timber building products.  Each of these groups referenced the termination of industrial relationship with Russia in light of the invasion in Ukraine.  While companies in the U.S. scramble to find the right synergies in their customer base, Finland has had to pivot away from their major trade partner and look for new markets themselves. 

 

Ville Skinnari, Minister of Foreign Trade, spoke on this pivot during his introductory remarks at our first factory tour at Versawood (Finland’s largest private sawn timber producer).  As a response to the now volatile nature of the timber industry, he encouraged using innovation as a tool to add value to already existing industry processes. Examples included energy generating business models which use leftover wood in pellet form as fuel, shared shipping services with other industries who travel the same routes to save expenditures, and modernizing policy to ensure processes and standards are truly benefiting ecology as well as consumers.  A path that seems to be shared right now between Finland and the United States is the scaling up of sustainable solutions.  How do forest bioproducts offer more value in a range of products to meet the growing demands of stakeholders who are listing sustainability goals as high priority in their projects? To Mr. Skinnari, it is a marathon mindset – not a race – and our Trade & Study Mission gave us the chance to visit many checkpoints along their marathon.

Ville Skinnari (Center left) shortly after opening remarks at Versawood. Adjacent moving left: George Berghorn, Sandra Lupien, & Erik Knauss.

FINDING & ANALYSIS: FIELD OBSERVATION

During our first site visit at Versowood, we saw how the company’s success was demonstrated by their eagerness to push technology in their process.  Versowood currently uses an automated sorting, measuring, and tagging system called Finnos which can precisely track all logs that come into the yard and leave the mill as finished product.  They’ve been able to minimize waste and put it to good reuse when there is some.

American delegates visiting Versowood.

Because of technological improvements in plant equipment and automation software, Versowood can operate an entire factory with four employees.  Similar companies rely on machinery innovators like Raute, Finland’s leading maker of veneer, plywood, and LVL technologies.  While visiting their facility, Raute touched on a database tool called Millsights, which allows them to better understand what separates the better performing mass timber fabricators from the less successful ones in the past.  Key takeaways included:

  • Top performers invest a minimum of 3% in R&D annually
  • Minimize the # of workers, but make the workplace attractive for top talent
  • Achieve resource efficiency
  • It takes at least 2 years to start a new mill
  • The manufacturing lines in the USA that do exist are aging and most are not within the optimal resource efficiency range
  • LVL has a higher material recovery rate than CLT and Glulam

With Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) being a hot commodity in today’s American mass timber market, it was sobering to come to the realization that in relation to resource efficiency, there is still room for improvement.  For instance, the CNC stage at a CLT plant is always the bottleneck.  While gluing happens in one shift, CNC finishing happens in two, with panel sizes often being limited by the dimensions of a CNC platform (about 3.5m x 16m).  CLT is also a tricky material in that it is both structural and aesthetic. Depending on the species of wood chosen for the assembly, cost and capacity can be a trade off.  Spruce offers the desirable “blonde” finish, but at a 10% cost increase to pine, which is at no strength disadvantage but is often knottier and less consistent in complexion.  It was evident that the current architectural response to these challenges in Finland was to appropriately intertwine mass timber systems with their concrete and/or steel counterparts, achieving a fine-tuned balance depending on the unique parameters of the project.

Katajanokan Laituri (Anttinen Oiva Arkkitehdit Oy) under construction in Helsinki combines a concrete plinth, mass plywood columns and girders, steel perimeter beams, and CLT deck.

Pinomatic is another Finnish company that was on our tour stop that is actively researching and testing improvements for CLT production. In addition to pushing the boundaries of machine-line automation, Pinomatic has developed a controls system that increases line efficiency, and better yet, can work together even with competitor’s machinery.  To me, this embodies the spirit behind my initial workshop question. How do we link our players together, competition and collaborators alike, to better expand resource efficiency in mass timber production?  Pinomatic holds a close working relationship with the fabricators they fit out, including their neighbors: CLT Plant Oy and JVR-Rakenne.  Both companies have found success in the prefabricated multi-family housing industry, a niche service that when mixed with thoughtful design, holds great potential to help address the affordable housing crisis, especially within our urban cores.  

(left) Prefabricated CLT wall panels on the line at JVR-Rakenne. 

(right) Puukuokka Housing Block, built in 2015. Completed exhibit of successful modular housing. Architect: OOPEAA.

In Finland, manufacturing niches seem to boast more success stories.  There are 3 CLT plants in the country currently; the ones who have exited the market have not been able to penetrate with a unique value add.  Honka is a prime example of a company that has been able to evolve their services in parallel with the timeline earlier in this narrative.  Honka delivers log buildings to 50 countries, amounting to over 90,000 structures that vary in scale from small saunas to tri-level restaurants.  Their unique process has been able to leverage the fact that Finnish mills utilize primarily 3”- 6” logs nationwide. Instead of making walls the traditional way with 12” – 18” tree trunks, Honka layers nominal lumber into built-up sections, effectively making a mass timber square log.  It has been technological advancements like these that have bolstered mass timber production in Finland.

Sataman Viilu: restaurant and sauna built from Honka logs. Viilu hosted us for a networking dinner where we were introduced to some of Finland’s finest wood innovators. Architects: Marko Simsiö and Johannes Koskela.

During our visit to Hewsaw, we learned of an automated saw technology that can instantly read the curvature of the log and curve along the length of even a warped log.  X-ray scanning is 100% rolled out in Finnish mills, which helps identify if wood is structural grade (glulam) or panel grade (CLT).  It is most efficient for mills to feed logs into grinders to form them into nominal blanks. Feed speed is a sweet spot that has been actively innovated over the years, as it affects the recoverability of chips. Faster speeds lead to chips that are less recoverable, while slower speeds slow the overall milling process.

(left) Log feeder under construction at Hewsaw.

(right) Mountain of wood pellets made from recovered wood chips at a mill.

The attention to detail in each of these innovations was pervasive throughout all of our appointments with the Finnish delegation.  We were inspired by the bold work being done at mills, factories, and suppliers across Finland and came away eager to seek opportunities to put similar practices into action in Michigan. Our delegation was also presented with a number of novel explorations and advancements in the wood product industry that went beyond current practices, looking to the future for new options to decrease our reliance on nonrenewable products, and increase our excitement about cellulose-based products as sustainable solutions.

FINDINGS & ANALYSIS: AALTO UNIVERSITY SEMINAR

On May 25th, Aalto University hosted a seminar titled From Forest to Innovations, which functioned as a showcase for the research that was ongoing in the wood bioproduct field throughout the region.  Innovations that were presented were not limited to wood as a building product; in fact, it expanded deeper into consumer markets such as packaging, clothing, and  materials research, giving startup companies and entrepreneurs the chance to present their specific niche in the wood value chain.  It was clear that all of this ancillary knowledge was both impacted by and imparted effect(s) on the wood construction industry, with many co-relationships relying on each other for success.  When I visited Finland in 2018, I was introduced to the concept of puuklusterit, or Wood Circles / Wood Clusters, roughly translated.  In a Wood Cluster, there is a certain concentration of operators in the wood industry.  These operators could consist of land owners, a mill or mills, universities, governmental bodies, a research institute, or building product manufacturers, that push the industry forward by sharing knowledge with each other in varying forms or feedback loops. In the States, we are familiar with the concept of open-source software development, or content creation. These clusters function similarly, but seem to be more regionally distributed: pockets of forested land are sustainably managed by groups like Metsä, for example. Trees are harvested with the latest logging equipment that has been developed by a university engineering program and produced by a regional equipment supplier.  Individual logs can be tracked using unique GPS-driven tagging from technology companies like Metsään Finnish Forest Center. “Digital twin” product data can be filtered through mills as logs are processed, and then applied to architectural proposals seeking to test and prove the sustainability measures of their individual project.  The Aalto University seminar was an exemplary display of a nation utilizing a shared resource to its fullest potential and leveraging analytics to execute efficiencies, something that the United States is in a good position to do if all of the right existing relationships and groups are synergized successfully.

(left) Example of wood cluster participants in the Kuhmo, Finland region.

(right) Wave-laminated timber from reclaimed lumber; can be fabricated without the need for glue.

RESEARCH APPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE COLLABORATION

There are a number of key relationships that operate now in the North American mass timber industry.  Leaders of expertise are emerging out of their respective sectors and state economies.

At the culmination of the Trade and Study Mission, opportunities and feedback for future collaboration were identified during the Climate Change Solutions Through Biobased Products Workshop at the Business Finland headquarters.  Nearly 70 U.S. delegates participated with 70 Finnish counterparts to trade insights and information in multiple sectors, largely higher education, private industry, non-profits, and governmental agencies.  The workshops were structured such that 10-15 participants gathered to discuss future scenarios in 10 areas of interest:

    • Enhancing forest resilience through soil amendments 
    • Precision forestry to reduce emissions 
    • Innovation ecosystems for climate-friendly wood products 
    • Market development for circular bioeconomy products*
    • Increasing carbon storage through advanced products from wood residuals 
    • Lignin valorization 
    • Optimizing climate impacts of mass timber 
    • Wildfire mitigation 
    • Sustainable forest ecology and conservation 
    • Forest policy
  •  
  • Market development for circular bioeconomy products* was ultimately chosen as the workshop title for the Lupien-Berghorn-Knauss joint proposal, originally titled Extending Mass Timber’s Carbon Benefits, as some realizations were made throughout the discussion.  As our work group brainstormed the adjustments needed to go from current mass timber design processes to one that’s more geared towards preserving mass timber’s reusability, we realized that a more appropriate starting point was to take a step outside of the AEC industry.  Having been exposed to a week’s worth of tours and seminars in Finland’s Wood Clusters, the need for market development domestically was evident in order to set up demand for residuals, incentives for developing reusable wood structures, and performance standards for mass timber buildings.

Finnish-American research workshop roundtable discussion during the workshop titled “Market 

Development for Circular Bioeconomy Products.”

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS

Our work group brainstormed approximately 18 topics related to mass timber design/construction/deconstruction in America, and was able to distill those topics into 3 central ideas for the workgroup to carry forward into further development:

  1. How do we create a better definition of “standardization” across the board of mass timber design? Exploring the value chain of wood products and their residuals can help quantify limits and set up comparisons between how efficient the use of mass timber is currently versus where we’d like to see it in the future.  Our work group believed that mass timber projects require a “roadmap to replication” and is curious to pursue ways in which to better synergize the main pressures of project site, project design, and prefabrication, in hopes of uncovering a best-practices guideline for unified mass timber design.  
  2. Can policy incentives increase the use of sustainable wood products and further decrease carbon footprints in buildings?  How do we promote building lifespans and begin to better understand life expectancies of a material versus the life expectancy of the building as a whole? How can managing data and setting carbon impact benchmarks help to benefit a design team as well as transfer those benefits to ownership? The team is excited to review existing policy to find opportunities for improvement and propose new incentives to make mass timber more competitive with steel and concrete.
  3. The mass timber master database.  There are many databases that currently exist that track mass timber usage in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry. Woodworks Innovation Network is a great example of one of these, and others provide a wealth of information for this growing industry.  Our workgroup sees great value in the potential of being able to create a master database that can collect these disparate groups into one location. We envision a tool that presents us with key performance indicators on carbon sequestration, standardization, chain of digitalization, prioritization and filtration of data, shared knowledge, incentives, and contextual overlaps.

A portion of the brainstorming exercise for the Market Development for Circular Bioeconomy Products workgroup.

The workshop day helped take our observations gathered along a week’s worth of tour stops and establish some big questions. The next step for the research team is to set up systems to be able to start to answer those questions, and hopefully, aid our bioeconomy partners in making more effective decisions for designers, end-users, and the planet.  Finland showed us that this is not only an attainable goal, but critical for the health, safety, and welfare of future generations.

(left) Helsinki Biennial Art Festival Entry Pavilion, Verstas Architects.

(right) Oodi Helsinki Central Library entry sequence, ALA Architects.

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