By Eric Peterson | Aug 15, 2021
Cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels
There's too much ponderosa pine in southwestern Colorado. Logging of old-growth trees in the late 1800s led to secondary regrowth, but it's not the right scale for big construction projects.
"Ponderosa pine fell out of favor as a dimensional species," says Hawk. "It's really tricky to dry, it's got a lot of knots, so it's difficult to get good yields for dimensional lumber. All of the secondary regrowth throughout the Southern Rockies really wasn't initially seen as marketable."
He continues, "As folks have gone into the forests to get other species -- aspen, what little Douglas fir is left, in some cases some of the spruce -- ponderosa pine has been left as a byproduct, and has often been buried or left on the ground to rot or just burned."
The U.S. Forest Service in 2016 approached Hanson to develop a plan to utilize ponderosa pine in the San Juan Mountains when he was the GM of Western Excelsior's mill in Mancos.
Hanson subsequently won a $243,000 Wood Innovation Grant from the federal agency that led to the startup of Timber Age Systems. Hawk helped Hanson write the grant application before leaving his career in natural gas to co-found the company.
The grant process led Hanson and Hawk to a vision for small-scale cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels made from locally harvested wood, and that led to the startup of Timber Age Systems with co-founder Hawk. "Cross-laminated timber was a neat way to be able to use it in a way no one had ever used it before, and use it more effectively and more of it, with higher yields," says Hanson.
After winning the grant, the co-founders embarked on market research "to help us understand everything we were thinking from the position of a developer, a real estate agent, and a banker," says Hanson. "We probably did 100 interviews of architects, builders, bankers, and other community stakeholders trying to understand the receptivity to what we were trying to do."
Their conclusion: Go small. "It's difficult to get into it for less than $10 or $15 million, and a lot of the facilities are $60 or $80 million facilities," says Hanson. "We knew we had something that could potentially utilize the ponderosa pines, but we knew the local forests here weren't going to produce at a rate that was going to match some of those bigger things, and we knew the market here wasn't established."
The plan initially called for a market education initiative bringing in CLT products made by other companies to Durango, but the smaller-scale panels from Timber Age generated immediate buy-in. "It was really that response to the smaller form factor that seemed like it started to open doors, and it matched with initial needs," says Hanson.
To demonstrate its panels, Timber Age built a few prototypes, followed by a bigger project where the company served as general contractor: a 384-square-foot outdoor kitchen entirely out of ponderosa pine.
"Once we had created a prototype or two, it created some momentum in the community and people said, 'Oh, this is beautiful!'" says Hawk. "To convince local builders to do something different, we had to get some actual prototypes on the landscape, and demonstrate how things can be done and why it might be beneficial. You're not going to get an industry to change that hasn't changed in 150 years to do it automatically."
Since then, the company's CLT panels have been used in a stairway landing, a small utility building, and a mailbox/parcel room for a rural subdivision. "We have several other larger projects in the pipeline as well," says Hawk. "We're increasing project scale and complexity."
He adds, "We're creating insulated wall systems now. The goal is to get to the point where we can flat-pack a modular structure where the shell of the building is arriving at the job site pre-insulated and ready for exterior cladding."
Timber Age currently sources wood from private landowners in Colorado. "As communities in our region are experiencing more and more wildfire, there has been more and more money pushed to private landowners to begin stewardship contracts, thinning, and forest health restoration projects on their land," says Hawk. "They often get that material on the ground and have nowhere to go with it. That's where we've been able to insert ourselves into the supply chain: Those landowners are now comfortable with selling or in some cases giving materials to Timber Age."
There are several key features and benefits, but price -- about 50 percent that of comparable products -- tops the list. "Because we're using ponderosa pine, the cost of raw materials looks a little bit different and the scale of production is so much different, our costs going into production are much lower than a traditional CLT plant," says Hawk.
The company made its first hires to help with manufacturing in early 2020, leaving Hanson and Hawk free to focus on business development. "They're very good at it," says Hanson. "It's been awesome to watch."
Hawk notes that the employees came over from businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19, namely restaurants and outdoor companies. "We got access to people that we would have not have had access to before COVID," he says. "COVID threw them a wrench, and they were left with an opportunity."
Timber Age Systems has an office in Durango and a 1,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on a farm near Bayfield, Colorado. "It also houses a couple portable sawmills, our wood-drying kiln," says Hawk, "and we've got some extra land out there for log storage."
The plan calls for similar sites throughout the West as the company scales with demand. "We're a young business," says Hawk. "It never goes as fast as you want it to, but it goes as fast as it can -- and as fast as the community begins to adopt a new technology."
Challenges: "The way that the construction industry works is a series of separate entities with varied definitions of success," says Hanson. "Acceptance means different things, and the value proposition varies as you go across the construction landscape."
Contractors might charge a percentage of the budget, meaning they make more money when prices increase, he explains. "Are there ways for us to define success universally?"
Opportunities: Affordable homes in communities with "high housing costs and abundant wood," says Hawk. The company is currently in talks with a number of mountain towns in Colorado that fit the bill; the plan is to partner with a community to build some model homes with the company's products in 2022. In the longer term, the strategy is to build a decentralized network of manufacturing facilities across the West; the input is not limited to ponderosa pine.
"The growth vision for Timber Age is replicating and not to scale hugely in a single location," adds Hawk. "The key to success from the supply chain and a cost of goods standpoint is to keep the working circle pretty small -- sub-100 miles. What we see as the solution is multiple small-scale micro-manufacturing facilities that are sprinkled around through rural communities."
Needs: Timber Age needs rural communities to adopt CLT panels in a big way. "There's a need for educating planning and permitting staff around what already exists in the International Building Code, because major metropolitan areas already have had exposure to mass timber products -- rural communities have not," says Hawk.