Could Nova Scotia-produced Mass Timber reduce our housing shortage AND save our Old Forests? 7Jan2024

The Lake Mjøsa Skyscraper in Brumunddal, Norway, is built of cross-laminated timber (CLT)”,   one of the major Mass Timber types in use today. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad, on Wikipedia

The first Mass Timber manufacturing facility east of Quebec is due to begin production in Hants Co., N.S. in 2026 and could supply as much as 1/4 of the housing supply in NS by the end the decade.  Can it be matched up with innovative forest managements practices introduced following the Forest Practices Review (2017-2018) to ensure truly sustainable wood production and protection of our Old Forests? Ans: In principle, Yes… but in practice there has been little if any serious attention  given to what is required to ensure that happens, certainly nothing in the public domain.

I began keeping a bit of a tab on developments in Mass Timber (or MTC for Mass Timber Construction) while writing NS Forest Notes (2016-2022) in my “quest to understand forests and forestry in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada”.

Mass timber is a transformative technology made by affixing or gluing together many pieces of wood veneers, flakes or dimension lumber to form larger, stronger pieces such as panels and beams. With wood’s natural ability to sequester and mitigate carbon dioxide (CO2), this green building material is one of our best answers to fundamental 21st century challenges associated with climate change and GHG emissions. – NRC 2021  (“Dimension lumber” is solid sawn wood that is less than 89 mm (3.5 in) in thickness, e.g., 2x4s – CWC)

I was intrigued by the potential for Mass Timber to replace steel and concrete in building construction and thereby greatly reduce carbon emissions, and its many other potential benefits compared to building with traditional construction materials commonly cited such as

– reduced construction time,
– increased fire resistance,
– improved thermal and acoustic properties/health benefits,
– “fast, clean, and quiet project delivery”,
– improved earthquake resistance.

Of note, Mass Timber requires only ‘smaller trees’ to make all of its products.   Even large dimension wood beams made by Mass Timber techniques from smaller trees have superior construction qualities to solid beams made from large trees; likewise Mass Timber products are beginning to replace wood products such as flooring and decking that have relied heavily on harvesting large diameter Old Growth.  In principle and in combination with economic efficiencies gained through Mass Timber technology – especially  if  developed locally – that should allow us to keep our Old Forest stands in Nova Scotia for their high ecological value, without impairing our ‘wood economy’. This potential benefit is not cited in most industry & government publications*  but I didn’t invent it!

A misconception is that mass timber demand would require harvesting larger trees and cause deforestation. With wood being a renewable resource, it can be regenerated using sustainable forest management practices. Mass timber generally uses younger, fast-growth trees (such as spruce) smaller than 11 inches in diameter on average. Combined with responsible forestry practices, it leaves old-growth trees untouched. Justin Chang, 2022 on www.sustainanalytics,com

Wood planks can be small; in Europe, one-inch-thick planks are being made, meaning that small-diameter trees can be used. Another advantage of the new process is that less desirable lumber grades, including those damaged by pests and those already dead, can be used without compromising the panel’s overall integrity…By opening up new supply fronts, CLT aids sustainable forestry. And because CLT manufacturers can harvest small and already-dead trees, tree-thinning becomes a profitable endeavor.- Deann Duff, Cross-laminated timber could ‘forge new links between lands and people’ 2017 in Univ. of Washington Magazine

*One might wonder if that’s because of the ‘economic dependence‘ on Old Growth in B.C., otherwise at the leading edge of Mass Timber development in Canada.

Forest Cover Loss (red) and gain (blue) in an area of Annapolis Co. 2001-2022. Most of the blue is in stands clearcut before 2001. From Global Forest Watch

Nova Scotia’s forests – making up 75% of the land cover – are amongst the most if not the most intensively harvested forests in Canada with concomitant loss of Old Growth and Old Forest*.  Increasing the amount of Old Forest in NS (not just Old Growth forest which constitutes  less than 1% of our forested area) is critical to reverse forest biodiversity losses, as well documented by  MatthewBetts et al., 2022**
*In Nova Scotia, Old Forest is generally considered to be forest 80 years and older; very roughly, in NS, trees of 16”/40 cm dbh (diameter at breast height) are typically at least 80 years of age (e.g., see growth curves in Stewart et al. 2003.)
**See related comments under Managing for Biodiversity in my post on the state of Triad Forestry in NS on Jan 18, 2023. More or less, Old Forest in Nova Scotia is equivalent to Old Growth in British Columbia  in terms of its percentage cover of the landscape and in the associated industry/environmentalist conflicts; there is little conflict over Old Growth in Nova Scotia because there is so little remaining. Likewise, Old Forest is becoming  more at  a premium in other areas of Canada where there has been intensive harvesting over long periods, see e.g., Mackay et al, 2023

It has taken since 2008 and two successive comprehensive reviews of forests and forestry practices in NS – the Natural Resources Strategy of 2008-2010 and the Forest Practices Review of 2018-2018 – to reach some consensus on the need for better protection of forest biodiversity, and the means of doing so. Following the”Lahey Report” of 2018, Nova Scotia adopted a Forest TRIAD* on its Crown lands (approx. 1/3rd of our forested lands) and recommended for private lands (approx.  2/3 of our forested lands). It’s the biggest trial yet of TRIAD forestry and is being watched closely as a practical solution to logging-versus-environment conflicts that have plagued forestry over the last 50 years or so.
*The Triad Components (from High Production Forestry Phase 2 Guidance for Implementation 2023)
In simple terms, there are three zones in this model:
– the conservation zone is where biodiversity is conserved and natural processes are allowed to function; this zone includes old-growth forest on Crown land that’s conserved under the Old-growth Forest Policy, provincial parks, protected areas managed under Environment and Climate Change’s legislation and areas that are being conserved without legal designations (such as pending protected areas)
– the ecological matrix or mixed use zone (the largest zone) is where biodiversity is prioritized with a mixture of conservation and a limited amount of timber is harvested using lower intensity practices that follow the Silvicultural Guide for the Ecological Matrix; this zone is entirely on Crown land
– the high production forest zone (the smallest zone) is where the focus is on quickly and efficiently growing high quality timber products to support the forestry sector and provincial economy, particularly in rural areas; this zone is entirely on Crown land.
…The conservation zone currently accounts for about 630,000 hectares or 35% of the triad) and is expected to grow as the province adds to its protected areas or identifies more old-growth forests for protection. The ecological matrix or mixed use zone currently represents about 1 million hectares or 55% of the triad) and may decrease if some lands are identified for long-term protection and are moved to the conservation zone. The high production zone may grow in hectares if more land is acquired but it will never be larger than 10% of the triad. This means 90% of Crown and protected areas land will always be committed to the two zones that prioritize biodiversity.

In many ways the HPF (High Production Forestry) component of the Triad seems an ideal match for Mass Timber technology:

Expectations of HPF in Nova Scotia

“With 10% of the triad dedicated to high production forestry (currently 185,000 hectares), a sufficient supply of primary forest products will be available to the forest products sector in Nova Scotia in the short term (about 359,000 green metric tonnes of softwood per year).

“Further, within 35 years, yields could be significantly increased from that land base to create. long-term opportunities for investment and growth in the sector. Once fully implemented, the high production forest zone is expected to generate more than 1 million green metric tonnes per year of high-quality spruce timber

“…Growth rates of planted forests under HPF management will be expected to equal or exceed 6 m3 /ha/yr at time of final harvest which is 50-100% greater (or more) than those found in unmanaged natural forests. Achieving and sustaining these high yields will require site preparation, use of improved seed and seedling stock, control of competing vegetation during the establishment phase (0-10 years), and periodic use of soil amendments to maintain site productivity.

“The red spruce scenario is designed to maximize sawlog volume with a piece size diameter at breast height (dbh) of 12 inches (30 cm) at year 50. White spruce scenarios are designed to achieve average diameters of 10 inches (25 cm) at age 45 or 8 inches (20 cm) at age 40 which maximizes both sawlog and studwood volume. Norway spruce scenarios are also designed to achieve average diameters of 10 inches (25 cm) at year 40 or 8 inches (20 cm) at year 35, but with a focus on studwood only (due to market limitations). In all cases, initial plantation density was set at 1,736 stems/ha (2.4 m spacing) with an assumed establishment stocking of 85%.”

High Production Forestry in Nova Scotia Phase 1 Final Report (2021); High Production Forestry Phase 2 Guidance for Implementation (2023)

So what’s stopping us moving ahead on this front, to matching a modern, sophisticated forest management regime with a modern, sophisticated wood processing/construction technology?

On Mass Timber manufacturing in NS 

To begin with, Mass Timber is still a new technology for Canada, more so for the Maritimes (NB,PEI, NS) where we do not currently have any Mass Timber manufacturing facilities. Also, while Mass Timber is a likely a familiar entity to many or most folks in the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, Construction) community in NS,  it’s not well known or discussed more broadly, e.g. it’s not mentioned in the two volumes of the Forest Practices Review of 2018, or in any of the follow-up documents to date, except for one mention on p.38 of the Attachments document for the 2021 Review of Progress.

That’s about to change. A Google search for citations of Mass Timber on (the NS Government website) brings up only one item, but it is very significant: a news release of July 20, 2022 citing Four More Projects receiving support from Forestry Innovation Fund, one of which was this: “MTC Mass Timber Company Inc. will receive $325,000 for feasibility testing for commercial production of mass timber in the province.” Feasibility testing and the amount of $ involved are not a big deal on their own; an accompanying quote in the news release provides the significant part (underlining inserted):

Mass timber is the fastest growing low-carbon infrastructure solution in North America and is seeing exponential growth in demand. MTC Mass Timber Company Inc., located in East Hants, will be a world-class mass timber manufacturer and the first in the world to integrate with existing sawmills to generate the highest value product from Nova Scotia wood. This funding will directly support the final feasibility testing to produce high-performing mass timber product to global markets. – Patrick Crabbe, Team Leader, MTC Mass Timber Company Inc.

The Patrick Crabbe Interview

Many more details are provided in a lengthy, highly informative interview with P.C.(Patrick Crabbe) conducted on Aug 30, 2023  by social scientist Don Mills, and economist David Campbell in their Acadia Podcast Insight Series.

Comments by Don Mills at the beginning of the interview echo my impression that there is little awareness/discussion of Mass Timber in NS, at least not outside of the AEC community:  “…today we talk with Patrick Crabbe the president CEO of a new company called the Mass Timber Company about mass timber. This is a this is a topic that I think few people will know much about, we certainly didn’t know much about it before the podcast.”

The interview is 58 minutes long, wide-ranging and P.C.  is refreshingly frank. He expresses boundless optimism, conveys a sense that he ‘knows what he is taking about’, and is quite explicit about some of the limitations he has experienced in trying to move Mass Timber ahead in NS, where others would probably be much more guarded – but he does so without any kind of malice. I see him as  a local boy who moved away, has done  well and now wants to ‘see things happen’ in NS/the Maritimes  because the opportunity exists and because he genuinely cares about this region.

The interview provides an intro. to use of Mass Timber generally, the state of the industry in Canada, and P.C.’s vision of how he sees technology unfolding in NS. It definitely  fills a void in the public domain as to ‘what is happening on the Mass Timber front in NS’ and is worth listening to in full.

Below, I highlight some of the information the interview provides about the planned manufacturing  facility in East Hants.

Says Crabbe ” [The] Mass Timber Company, will be the most modern net-zero-ready sawmill integrated, mass timber manufacturing facility that has the ability to produce in an automated fashion, the commodity products that are required in both Canadian and U.S. markets; but as well as in a automated way, can produce the large components that can kind of build the taller wood infrastructure…it’ll be a 50-50 split between servicing Canada and the U.S…the manufacturing facility will be around 232,000 square feet, the office component is around 15,000 square feet, and the production capacity..roughly 50,000 cubic meters of mass timber in year five. That that equates to around 2.5 million square feet of construction.”

Crabbe anticipates  the total capital cost to be “around 177.5 million” and “when in operation we can expect that there will be a minimum of 130 full time employees.”

Partners in project include “two very dedicated, incredible partners that are longstanding family-owned sawmills here in Nova Scotia and that’s Elmsdale Lumber and Ledwidge LumberGeographically they’re located close to one another and they are about 5 kilometers away from our proposed site and they have different business models. So they aren’t necessarily competitors. Ledwidge is more of a stud mill, higher production capacity, smaller pieces of wood which is perfect for our CLT manufacturing; and then Elmsdale is more of that specialty higher quality mill with larger components that really service are blue and manufacturing needs.”

On the public side, Crabbe cites the province of Nova Scotia, its Forestry Innovation Transition Trust and the Nova Scotia Innovation Hub… federal partners, are ACOA as well as Natural Resources Canada Investment in Force Industry Transformation which is called IFIT for short. They are “hoping that are hoping that by summer/fall of 2026 that we will move into production.”

Mills and Cameron comment that they talked with  “Duncan Williams, the CEO of Construction Association Nova Scotia who predicted that we’re going to need in Nova Scotia between 12 and 15,000 residential units by the end of this decade which coincides very nicely when this plant will be at full production, and might actually be able to provide 1/4 of that demand.”

So Patrick Crabbe’s initiative is a Big Deal and should really kick-start Mass Timber production in NS. If it unfolds as envisioned, it will surely be good for the ‘wood economy’ of this province and contribute significantly to reducing our housing shortage.

What about Saving our Old Forest?

Wabanaki Forest Love Affair  (Yellow Birch & Eastern Hemlock) It wont be found in managed forests where mounds are levelled and trees thinned.

There is no mention by P.C.  or the interviewers of issues related to sustainability of wood production in NS, forest conservation etc.,  except that the lower carbon footprint compared to concrete is cited as the No 1. benefit of using MTC in place of concrete. Crabbe comments “[A] mass timber solution is about a 40% reduction in embodied carbon compared to that of concrete: and that  and about “wood bridges come in with above a 70% reduction in carbon”.

Mass Timber advocates (including producers, marketers etc) often cite figures that underscore the carbon benefits of various wood harvesting/manufacture schemes but without acknowledging or confirming  the conditions that have to be met for those to be realized and those conditions can be very project/location specific. Often “sustainably sourced wood” is cited and that provides some assurances about sustainability of the wood supply but even certification schemes – and NS Crown land regulations – still do not address local factors sufficiently to guard against major negative impacts on forest biodiversity/carbon stores/ecological integrity as we learned in NS.*
*See NSFN Posts of Feb 22, 2018; and Mar 17, 2018

`There is plenty of reason to be cautious about claims that specific Mass Timber products or projects are sustainable and provide specific carbon benefits – see articles cited on this website under Mass Timber/Carbon & Biodiversity Impacts –  and to encourage/insist on independent accounting of such claims.

These comments by Blaine Brownell in Architect Magazine sum it up nicely:

While our newfound love for mass timber and its carbon banking potential is not misguided, it should be shaped by a different temporal perspective—one based on ecosystem cycles rather than quarterly reports. Wood inherently has an advantage over concrete and steel when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. However, in our rush to build ever-larger buildings with timber, architects’ untempered promotion of wood products could drive industry towards a reckless and unimaginable end. In short, we need to be more mindful of ecological growth than we are of market growth.

“If you want to maximize the net present value of a forest for its current owners and deliver the most wood in the shortest time, then yes: cut the old growth and plant straight-rowed replacement plantations, which you’ll be able to harvest a few more times,” Dr. Westerford tells to the judge in The Overstory. “But if you want next century’s soil, if you want pure water, if you want variety and health, if you want stabilizers and services we can’t even measure, then be patient and let the forest give slowly.”

Clearly,  we need to demand of government and industry  that they apply the same standards to evaluation and regulation of environmental impacts of Mass Timber as they do to ensuring that structures made from Mass Timber meet stringent safety standards; that can only be good for all of us, and for all species in Nova Scotia. And if we actually do it, we would justifiably have lots to brag about.

I suggest that  the following advice is fully appropriate for Nova Scotia as we implement our  Brave New Forest Management Regime and see the establishment of the first Mass Timber facility east of Quebec; substitute “Old Forest” for “Old Growth” and “Forest Degradation” for “Deforestation”:

If making clear choices that stand up to scrutiny is important to consumers, it is up to them to decide what is acceptable as responsibly sourced timber, and then to keep demanding high quality oversight, just as they do with other products, such as coffee, cotton, and seafood.  It is up to the design and construction industry to work with foresters and ecologists to ensure that the future of MTC promotes silvicultural standards that do not masquerade as forest substitutes, but provide timber in ways that maximize biodiversity, even to the detriment of profits.  Ideally this approach also augments carbon sequestration.

Virgin forests should remain off-limits, and the reestablishment and protection of old-growth forests promoted.  When possible, these areas should be linked with national parks, preserves, and wildlife crossings over major infrastructure that create unbroken wildlife corridors.  This method will probably not maximize monetary profits, which is why it is important to define our priorities.

Happily, the general consensus is that by nearly every measure, MTC is an excellent choice for construction, although it will not entirely replace steel and concrete (rather, these material choices make excellent hybrid structures).  It should be included in the building code and its increased use should be encouraged by supporting research, experimentation, and certification for it as a safe and desirable building system.  If this is the moment when we decide to increase the use of wood in our cities through MTC, then there is no better moment to ensure we do not allow this rush to cause more deforestation in the name of “sustainability.”
Georgina Davis, 2018 Complex Nature: Implications for Forests with the Rise of Mass Timber Construction. on>/span>

Some Links

Also view Mass Timber and subpages on this website

A just-released book on Mass Timber is especially pertinent, likely to be widely referenced, discussed:

By Lindsey Wikstrom, 2023. Routledge/Tylor and Francis.

If we want to continue existing on this earth, an era of renewable energy and materials is urgently needed. What role could mass timber, with its potential to replace concrete and steel, have in ensuring the planet’s survival?

Designing the Forest and other Mass Timber FuturesThis book retraces wood’s passage from stewarded seed in the soil of forests, to harvested biomass, to laminated walls in a living room, through to its disassembly, pausing at each step in the supply chain of mass timber to consider the labor and economies involved, looking closely at the way wood is grown, sourced, and transported, and its impacts on the biodiversity of the forest and the health of our ecosystems. It explores why historically entrenched contexts of extractivism make such sensitive approaches difficult to cultivate across landscapes and industrial frameworks. Along the way, common assumptions about mass timber are debunked, including its fire performance, its strength, and its role in carbon sequestration. Having identified contemporary technical, cultural, and spiritual gaps preventing the transition towards a fully timber built environment, it outlines how we might move forward. A more sensitive species-based methodology is essential, with designers as choreographers of carbon, transferring and trading between forest, factory, site, and beyond.

I have just finished a once-through read of the book, an amazing piece of work. It’s very scholarly and well referenced, reads well, provides historical context and is replete with detailed, thought-provoking graphics. She explains all of the ins and outs of Mass Timber construction, the potential for using many more species and  explores the possibilities for radically reforming our relationship with forests for the benefit of both the forests and us. It’s fully worth the ~$50.

The State of Mass Timber in Canada 2021
Natural Resources Canada

It’s Showtime CWF event highlights innovation and investment
In latest ed (Nov 2023) of Atlantic Forestry Review. Describes collaboration between Patrick Crabbe, Elmsdale Lumber, Ledwidge Lumber to launch Mass Timber in NS. It notes that to “prime the pump”, there are plans to erect two 22-story all-wood apt buildings in Dartmouth. Available in print only

Building the Future with Wood
Christopher Cheung in The Tyee 15 Nov 2023 “Meet people reinventing construction by pushing ‘mass timber’ bigger and higher. It’s good for the planet too.

What is Mass Timber and Why Should Canada Lead the Industry?
On Oct 8, 2020. Discusses current limitation to use of Mass Timber, provides examples of it use.

Grove of 200 year-old hemlocks discovered by Friends of the Goldsmith Lake Wilderness Area (Annapolis Co.) in mid Dec. 2023
View FB Post

Nina Newington Save Our Old Forests
Youtube video of presentation to NS Wild Flora Society Nov 27, 2023. “Nina Newington and other citizen scientists are playing a key role in the effort to protect the proposed Goldsmith Lake Wilderness Area in Annapolis County. To date they have identified 27 Species At Risk occurrences (principally lichens), halting logging operations for now. They recently discovered an area of old-growth forest where Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) maps showed only forest under 80 years old. Nina will present an overview of their explorations and the Save Our Old Forests campaign which recently expanded to include Halifax County”. View Abbreviated Transcript Also view Save Our Old Forests (SOOF) on

On Reversing Forest Degradation in Nova Scotia
Page on (June 8, 2022)

  2. Deforestation’  versus ‘Forest Degradation’
  3. We can no longer ignore effects of  “forest degradation”
  4. Current Landscape level goals for Old Forest conservation
  5. Forest degradation in Nova Scotia: Highgrading at the Landscape Level
  6. How much Old Forest do we need?
  7. & What about the wood supply?
  8. Conclusion: can Nova Scotia be a model for the practice of Triad Forestry?
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