Vilsack highlights ‘mass timber’ to use small trees cut for wildfire prevention

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says mass timber is an environmentally friendly type of construction that can be supplied by the government’s efforts to control forest fires. (Photo by Jared Strong / Iowa Capital Dispatch)

West Des Moines, Ia. — The federal government plans to remove kindling from about 75 million acres of land in the next decade — which includes thinning smaller-diameter trees from forests — to help prevent wildfires that have become more frequent and destructive in the western states.

That presents a problem: “What do you do with all that wood?” asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

On Friday, he stood within part of the answer: A three-story building in West Des Moines’ Valley Junction business district that is being constructed with so-called “mass timber.”

The building — dubbed the Junction Development Catalyst project — is supported by massive columns and beams of wood that are made of smaller planks that are sandwiched and glued together.

Some of the upper-level flooring is also made of plywood that is layered in a similar manner.


When the building is complete this fall, it will host a mix of commercial and residential space, with 11 apartments. Construction began in February. It’s anticipated to be the first mass timber building in Iowa with residential space.

The state’s first mass timber building stands in Des Moines’ East Village, according to the Des Moines Register. There are about 1,400 mass timber projects already built or being designed in the United States, according to WoodWorks, a national non-profit group that tracks the projects.

“It’s the future of buildings, in some ways,” said Daniel Willrich, director of architecture for Pelds Design Services, the Des Moines firm that designed the building.

The wooden support structure is not as strong as steel, but it’s stout enough to support a building that has more than 10 stories. Plus, the buildings take less time to construct because the mass timber pieces are manufactured to custom specifications and have built-in connectors.

“It goes up pretty quickly because it comes out sort of like a big puzzle,” Willrich said.

The beams are engineered to be stronger than what’s necessary to support the structure so that they won’t fail if the building catches fire, he said.

The $1.8 million project is the work of Cutler Development, which in recent years has undertaken several renovations and new building constructions in Valley Junction, according to its website. It’s the first mass timber project for the company, which is planning to build lofts on Ingersoll Avenue using the same construction method.

“We think this is a better way to build buildings,” said Scott Cutler, who operates the development company with his wife Molly.

The project is being funded, in part, with about $243,000 of federal money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wood Innovations Grant Program, which was launched in 2015 with a goal of using the forest leftovers to create new products or use for fuel.

The purpose of Vilsack’s visit to Valley Junction on Friday was to announce $32 million of new funding for that grant program and a companion program with similar goals. He said the Cutlers’ Ingersoll project is in line to get about $250,000 of that funding.

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Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch
Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.