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Vilsack, in Iowa, announces grants for mass timber projects that can help lower wildfire risk

Katie Peikes
Junction Development Catalyst project in West Des Moines is made from mass timber. Mass timber consists of layers of wood compressed together.

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to lower the threat of wildfires across the country by removing the trees that fuel those hazardous fires on millions of acres.

The federal agency, which is under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plans to tackle some 50 million acres of federal, state and private land over the next decade. But the question, U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack said during a visit to Iowa on Friday, is how to make use of all of that wood from those small-diameter trees.

“Well, folks have come up with ways in which you can compress this wood to create structures like this,” said Vilsack, speaking from Junction Development Catalyst, a mixed-use development in West Des Moines that will have affordable housing and commercial space.

The project is using a sustainable material called mass timber, which is made from layers of wood compressed together. It’s only the second mass timber project in Iowa and the first in the state to include affordable housing, according to the architect and developers.

“The purpose of this is to take this diseased wood, the burnt wood, remove it from our forest areas, reducing the risk of fire,” Vilsack said, “creating jobs in rural places across the country, converting it into these materials that then allow folks to construct facilities like this one.”

The project, developed by Cutler Development, received a 2021 Wood Innovation Grant of nearly $250,000 from the Forest Service to help build it. The goal of these grants is to bolster the use of wood products and the market for wood energy.

“It’s amazing technology,” said Vilsack, about the mass timber. “But it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work unless there is an incentive to make it work.”

Katie Peikes
“It’s amazing technology,” said Secretary Tom Vilsack, about the mass timber. “But it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work unless there is an incentive to make it work.”

Vilsack said these grants help motivate communities to take on these projects. He announced the latest round of grant funding, more than $32 million. A project by Iowa State University in Ames and a project by Cutler Development in Des Moines received funding through this round of grants.

Daniel Willrich, the architect for the Junction Development Catalyst project, said the structure of the building is about three-quarters mass timber. The material, which is lighter than steel, he said, saves on cost.

Mass timber is used for the first floor’s columns and beams. The floor, roof deck and beams on the second and third floors are mass timber as well. Willrich touted the building’s sustainable component but said he hasn’t calculated its carbon footprint.

“But that’s sort of the message behind mass timber is that ability to save carbon footprint,” Willrich said. “It does actually sequester the carbon versus off-gassing and putting out carbon into the atmosphere.”

Construction is expected to wrap up in September or October.