Posted on

As Concerns Over Climate Change Rise, More Developers Turn to Wood

SPOKANE, Wash. — Although it was established in 1873 near some of North America’s most productive forests, Spokane has rarely focused on new timber products in construction. But that is starting to change.

In the city’s downtown, Eastern Washington University has moved into the Catalyst Building, a five-story, 150,000-square-foot structure, the first tall wood office building in Washington State. Sunshine pours through the $40 million building’s large windows and bathes the wood beams and laminated wood floor and ceiling panels.

Built by Katerra, a construction company based in Menlo Park, Calif., Catalyst is the newest of 384 large “mass timber” buildings in the United States. The first was built in Montana in 2011, and according to industry figures, 500 more are under construction or planned.

The cross-laminated wood panels used for Catalyst were manufactured at Katerra’s 270,000-square-foot automated plant on the outskirts of the city. The $150 million plant is the newest and largest of nine in the United States that make laminated wood panels, and three more are in development.

Both the building and the plant are at the leading edge of the fast-growing American market for tall wood buildings constructed of the laminated panels, beams and columns that the industry calls mass timber.

Developers are turning to wood for its versatility and sustainability. And prominent companies like Google, Microsoft and Walmart have expressed support for a renewable resource some experts believe could challenge steel and cement as favored materials for construction.

“We are making huge headway in the U.S. now,” said Michael Green, a leading mass timber architect for Katerra who is based in Vancouver, Canada, and designed the Catalyst Building and several more in North America.

Image
Credit…Rajah Bose for The New York Times

Wood has several advantages over other building materials, including the ability to help curb climate disruption, that are driving the interest, he said.

Steel and cement generate significant shares of greenhouse gases during every phase of their production. By contrast, wood stores carbon, offsetting the emission of greenhouse gases.

“The environmental aspects alone are attractive,” Mr. Green said. “Cross-laminated timber panels are faster to assemble. There’s much less construction site waste.”

Katerra bills itself as a Silicon Valley technology company devoted to designing, manufacturing and constructing ecologically sensitive buildings; it operates a second plant in the United States and two in India. The company reported $1.7 billion in revenue last year, and it has $4 billion in orders, according to company executives.

When Katerra was founded in 2015, only 10 large buildings in the United States were constructed from cross-laminated timber panels. But demand for the products is so strong that the number of construction projects could double annually and reach more than 24,000 by 2034, according to a report released this year by the Forest Business Network, an industry trade group.

Walmart has turned to mass timber as it replaces its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., with a 350-acre corporate campus. Demolition is underway to make room for 12 cross-laminated timber buildings encompassing 2.4 million square feet. The largest is 332,000 square feet, and the tallest is five stories, according to a spokeswoman, Anne Hatfield.

Southern yellow pine, raised in Arkansas forests and cut by local mills, will be turned into laminated panels, beams and columns by Structurlam Mass Timber Corporation, a Canadian manufacturer. The wood will be produced in a 288,000-square-foot steel mill in Conway, Ark., that Structurlam is converting into a $90 million mass timber manufacturing plant that will employ 130 people.

Image

Credit…Benjamin Benschneider
Image

Credit…Benjamin Benschneider

Another significant promoter is Hines, a global real estate investment, development and management firm based in Houston. Four years ago, Hines opened T3, a seven-story, 221,000-square-foot, cross-laminated timber office building in Minneapolis also designed by Mr. Green.

The wood structure cost $60 million, 5 to 10 percent more than one built with concrete and steel. But the ease and speed of lifting and fitting manufactured pieces into place saves money on labor, said Steve Luthman, a senior managing director at Hines.

In addition to the labor savings, tenants are attracted to wood surfaces in work spaces. Hines sold the building in 2018 for $392 a square foot, a record for a Minneapolis office building.

The company has since built a similar six-story, 200,000-square-foot mass timber office project in Atlanta. It is also constructing a 10-story wood office building on Toronto’s waterfront, one of three it plans in that city. And it is in various stages of design and development for mass timber office buildings in Denver, Nashville and the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina.

“Our industry is on the precipice of broad adoption of mass timber for construction,” Mr. Luthman said.

But as the market grows, so have concerns over safety. One of the biggest critics has been the $43 billion ready-mix concrete industry, which produces 307 million cubic yards of concrete annually in the United States for building construction, or 83 percent of total projects. Fearing wood will nudge concrete aside, the industry’s national association formed Build With Strength, an advocacy group that asserts, among other critiques, that tall wood buildings are not safe.

“Have we not learned our lesson about increased density with combustible construction?” said Gregg Lewis, executive vice president of National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. “We’ve seen what happens when we build cities out of wood.”

To counter claims that mass timber buildings are unsafe, developers have financed scientific studies and collaborated with university research groups to show big wood panels and stout support beams defied fire and performed well in earthquakes.

The findings have persuaded building code regulators and municipal permitting agencies to relax height restrictions for tall wood buildings. Washington and Oregon, eager to expand opportunities in their logging and wood products sectors, now allow 18-story wood buildings.

Image

Credit…Rajah Bose for The New York Times

In Milwaukee, city authorities allowed New Land Enterprises and Wiechmann Enterprises to build Ascent, a 25-story, $125 million downtown residential building. It is being built from laminated timber panels manufactured and shipped from Austria, where the technology was developed in the early 1990s. Ascent is 4 feet higher than the 280-foot Norwegian mass timber building that opened last year and was considered the world’s tallest wood tower.

Mass timber developers also dispute claims that timber buildings threaten forests.

Katerra engineers say the average diameter of trees used for panels is 12 inches, which makes them just the sort of small trees that foresters say need to be thinned from forests to curb wildfires.

Environmentalists also are comfortable with mass timber. The United States has hundreds of millions of acres of forest, and no old-growth trees are used to produce cross-laminated panels.

Some lumber at Katerra’s Spokane plant is milled 105 miles away in Lewiston, Idaho, by the Idaho Forest Group, one of the country’s largest buyers of trees from national forests. The company regularly participates in negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service, environmental groups and local governments to set limits on the number of trees that can be cut in national forests while protecting old-growth trees and wildlife.

There is more than enough timber in Idaho’s national forests to meet the demands of the mass timber market, said Brad Smith, North Idaho director of the Idaho Conservation League.

“We are well within the limit for that forest and other national forests here,” he said. “If mills stay below those limits, they can cut for mass timber buildings or anything else they want.”

Posted on

In a Field Dominated by Men, She’s in Charge

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special section, which focuses on women challenging traditional ways of thinking.

Growing up in Meridian, Miss., Tonya Hicks adored working on cars and rebuilding motors with her Uncle Melvin, an industrial mechanic.

“I learned all about my tools from ratchets to socket wrenches by handing them to him, and sometimes sliding under the cars to have a look,” she said. “Even as a 5-year-old, the back of my sundress would have oil stains and under my nails would be black — which didn’t go over well with Mama.”

Her mother’s displeasure was just the first of a string of obstacles in the route Ms. Hicks followed to becoming an electrician and running a growing business. Discrimination, sexual harassment and that she is a woman of color were all hurdles as she made her way into the male-dominated industry. In the United States, 2.4 percent of electricians are women, and 9.5 percent of electrical contracting businesses are owned by women.

Ms. Hicks, now 47, faced career pushback before entering the skilled-trades arena. Her math acumen earned her a scholarship to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she was a math major with a minor in computer science. “I wanted to be a mathematician working on coding and computer software for the Defense Department,” she said.

But during her sophomore year, her professional path hit a roadblock.

“One of my instructors told me that those kinds of jobs were not readily available for a black woman,” Ms. Hicks said. “All of my dreams just came down. He said the best thing I could do is focus on becoming a teacher. I thought, ‘That is just not me.’”

Her fortune changed during her summer break, when she landed work as a laborer at a paper mill. “It was exciting,” she said. “I saw how the industrial electricians were using math all the time.”

She forfeited her scholarship and did not return to college in the fall. “My family thought I was a complete failure and letting everyone down,” she said.

Her challenges continued. When Ms. Hicks applied for the apprenticeship program at her hometown electrical union, she found herself being interviewed by five white men.

“They told me, ‘You know three white women tried before you and failed,’” she recalled. “‘Don’t you think it’s going to be hard you being a black female?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’”

She was right. Ms. Hicks was the first woman to complete the five-year program becoming the first female journeyman electrician in Local 917 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) and among the first few African-American women in Mississippi to do so. (Only 6.8 percent of electricians are black or African-American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Ms. Hicks was tenacious. She traveled long distances to find work at car plants and steel mills and in the construction of airports from Mississippi to Michigan. She did not blink at being on the job 12 hours a day, seven days a week as she learned her trade.

The workplace could be frustrating. “There were many times when I would show up at a job and no man talked to me, or acknowledged my presence,” she said. “Many times, the foremen on the jobs didn’t know what to do with me because I was the only woman. They would send me to the material trailer to clean it up, instead of working a job on the floor. That’s how I learned about the construction business and how to estimate. I would read everything I found there.”

When a co-worker urged her to start her own business, she never looked back.

“I had worked for nine different employers that year and was ready to take control of my career,” she said.

So in 2000, Ms. Hicks started Power Solutions, an electrical contracting firm based in Atlanta that focused on commercial and industrial buildings and now specializes in renewable energy and smart-city technology. She was 28. “I bought a computer and had my business cards made with clip art of a woman electrician with a lightning bolt,” Ms. Hicks said. “That’s me.”

To fund her start-up, she tapped into roughly $10,000 of personal savings. And she began networking with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and women’s business groups. “These women helped me,” she said. “That was a culture shock. People accepted me.”

The business will start operations in Singapore and the Netherlands this year.

Image
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

But she is not done. Ms. Hicks is assembling the next group of women to work in skilled-trade industries. With support of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a city-funded incubator for women-owned businesses in Atlanta, her latest venture is a career development agency and training center to help women get jobs in male-dominated industries. It will start this summer in Atlanta, with plans for nine more centers to open in cities across the country, including Detroit and Englewood, Calif.

“I am tired of being the only, the first,” she said. “I’m working to try to change that. I look at construction as the last frontier for women. I don’t think it’s any better than when I started. It takes a long time to change culture. And it’s not where it needs to be for women to feel there is a real opportunity.”

Apprenticeships like the one Ms. Hicks held provide on-the-job training and are vital to the success of women in the skilled-trade sector. In 2017, however, only 7.3 percent of those completing registered apprenticeships were women.

“Growing the number of women in construction or the trades is no small feat,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It takes a tremendous amount of coordination between work-force development programs, labor unions, contractors and the government. These are higher-paying jobs with benefits, and potential for increased earnings over time — all things that are particularly meaningful for working women with families.”

But change has been incremental.

“Although huge strides have been made over the last several decades, there does remain a significant lack of diversity of women and women of color in the skilled trades and construction industry,” said Vicki Anderson, the chief executive of Stevens Engineers and Constructors, based in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

The obstacles that Ms. Hicks encountered more than 20 years ago are still rampant. Sexual harassment is still an issue, according to Carolyn Williams, a retired director of the I.B.E.W. Civic and Community Engagement Department. “The biggest challenge for women entering the field is the sexism,” she said. “You think about that environment it has this macho connotation behind it.”

While the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are not indicative of a huge increase in women’s participation in the skilled trades, there are many groups now offering support, Ms. Williams said, and more tradeswomen are recruiting women and educating their unions on the obstacles and solutions to removing the barriers that women face in the skilled trades.

Programs, like Chicago Women in Trades and Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York City, have built a channel for women entering construction and other traditionally male-dominated fields.

“Women often get clogged in the pipeline due to the lack of support by male supervisors or co-workers, sexual harassment, or they do not receive the proper training or support to do all aspects of the job,” Ms. Mason said. “These jobs are also less flexible and do not provide support services for child care or take into account women’s disproportionate caretaking responsibilities compared to men. As a result, retention of women in nontraditional jobs and skilled trades can be difficult.”

In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research was recently awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve retention and advancement for women in construction and manufacturing fields.

That mission resonates with Ms. Hicks. While she admittedly has been through some tough years as her business has gained traction, her biggest return has been “empowering women economically,” she said.

“Being a boss is giving other people an opportunity to make money and to help them grow,” she said. “Not until you are building up another person are you a true leader.”

Posted on

In a Field Dominated by Men, She’s in Charge

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special section, which focuses on women challenging traditional ways of thinking.

Growing up in Meridian, Miss., Tonya Hicks adored working on cars and rebuilding motors with her Uncle Melvin, an industrial mechanic.

“I learned all about my tools from ratchets to socket wrenches by handing them to him, and sometimes sliding under the cars to have a look,” she said. “Even as a 5-year-old, the back of my sundress would have oil stains and under my nails would be black — which didn’t go over well with Mama.”

Her mother’s displeasure was just the first of a string of obstacles in the route Ms. Hicks followed to becoming an electrician and running a growing business. Discrimination, sexual harassment and that she is a woman of color were all hurdles as she made her way into the male-dominated industry. In the United States, 2.4 percent of electricians are women, and 9.5 percent of electrical contracting businesses are owned by women.

Ms. Hicks, now 47, faced career pushback before entering the skilled-trades arena. Her math acumen earned her a scholarship to Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, where she was a math major with a minor in computer science. “I wanted to be a mathematician working on coding and computer software for the Defense Department,” she said.

But during her sophomore year, her professional path hit a roadblock.

“One of my instructors told me that those kinds of jobs were not readily available for a black woman,” Ms. Hicks said. “All of my dreams just came down. He said the best thing I could do is focus on becoming a teacher. I thought, ‘That is just not me.’”

Her fortune changed during her summer break, when she landed work as a laborer at a paper mill. “It was exciting,” she said. “I saw how the industrial electricians were using math all the time.”

She forfeited her scholarship and did not return to college in the fall. “My family thought I was a complete failure and letting everyone down,” she said.

Her challenges continued. When Ms. Hicks applied for the apprenticeship program at her hometown electrical union, she found herself being interviewed by five white men.

“They told me, ‘You know three white women tried before you and failed,’” she recalled. “‘Don’t you think it’s going to be hard you being a black female?’ And I said, ‘Nope.’”

She was right. Ms. Hicks was the first woman to complete the five-year program becoming the first female journeyman electrician in Local 917 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (I.B.E.W.) and among the first few African-American women in Mississippi to do so. (Only 6.8 percent of electricians are black or African-American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Ms. Hicks was tenacious. She traveled long distances to find work at car plants and steel mills and in the construction of airports from Mississippi to Michigan. She did not blink at being on the job 12 hours a day, seven days a week as she learned her trade.

The workplace could be frustrating. “There were many times when I would show up at a job and no man talked to me, or acknowledged my presence,” she said. “Many times, the foremen on the jobs didn’t know what to do with me because I was the only woman. They would send me to the material trailer to clean it up, instead of working a job on the floor. That’s how I learned about the construction business and how to estimate. I would read everything I found there.”

When a co-worker urged her to start her own business, she never looked back.

“I had worked for nine different employers that year and was ready to take control of my career,” she said.

So in 2000, Ms. Hicks started Power Solutions, an electrical contracting firm based in Atlanta that focused on commercial and industrial buildings and now specializes in renewable energy and smart-city technology. She was 28. “I bought a computer and had my business cards made with clip art of a woman electrician with a lightning bolt,” Ms. Hicks said. “That’s me.”

To fund her start-up, she tapped into roughly $10,000 of personal savings. And she began networking with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and women’s business groups. “These women helped me,” she said. “That was a culture shock. People accepted me.”

The business will start operations in Singapore and the Netherlands this year.

Image
Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

But she is not done. Ms. Hicks is assembling the next group of women to work in skilled-trade industries. With support of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, a city-funded incubator for women-owned businesses in Atlanta, her latest venture is a career development agency and training center to help women get jobs in male-dominated industries. It will start this summer in Atlanta, with plans for nine more centers to open in cities across the country, including Detroit and Englewood, Calif.

“I am tired of being the only, the first,” she said. “I’m working to try to change that. I look at construction as the last frontier for women. I don’t think it’s any better than when I started. It takes a long time to change culture. And it’s not where it needs to be for women to feel there is a real opportunity.”

Apprenticeships like the one Ms. Hicks held provide on-the-job training and are vital to the success of women in the skilled-trade sector. In 2017, however, only 7.3 percent of those completing registered apprenticeships were women.

“Growing the number of women in construction or the trades is no small feat,” said C. Nicole Mason, president and chief executive of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “It takes a tremendous amount of coordination between work-force development programs, labor unions, contractors and the government. These are higher-paying jobs with benefits, and potential for increased earnings over time — all things that are particularly meaningful for working women with families.”

But change has been incremental.

“Although huge strides have been made over the last several decades, there does remain a significant lack of diversity of women and women of color in the skilled trades and construction industry,” said Vicki Anderson, the chief executive of Stevens Engineers and Constructors, based in Middleburg Heights, Ohio.

The obstacles that Ms. Hicks encountered more than 20 years ago are still rampant. Sexual harassment is still an issue, according to Carolyn Williams, a retired director of the I.B.E.W. Civic and Community Engagement Department. “The biggest challenge for women entering the field is the sexism,” she said. “You think about that environment it has this macho connotation behind it.”

While the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics are not indicative of a huge increase in women’s participation in the skilled trades, there are many groups now offering support, Ms. Williams said, and more tradeswomen are recruiting women and educating their unions on the obstacles and solutions to removing the barriers that women face in the skilled trades.

Programs, like Chicago Women in Trades and Nontraditional Employment for Women in New York City, have built a channel for women entering construction and other traditionally male-dominated fields.

“Women often get clogged in the pipeline due to the lack of support by male supervisors or co-workers, sexual harassment, or they do not receive the proper training or support to do all aspects of the job,” Ms. Mason said. “These jobs are also less flexible and do not provide support services for child care or take into account women’s disproportionate caretaking responsibilities compared to men. As a result, retention of women in nontraditional jobs and skilled trades can be difficult.”

In fact, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research was recently awarded a three-year, $750,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve retention and advancement for women in construction and manufacturing fields.

That mission resonates with Ms. Hicks. While she admittedly has been through some tough years as her business has gained traction, her biggest return has been “empowering women economically,” she said.

“Being a boss is giving other people an opportunity to make money and to help them grow,” she said. “Not until you are building up another person are you a true leader.”