Interview with Lindsey Wikstrom and Jennifer Shakun


Volume 10, Issue 00
April 1, 2024

A conversation with Lindsey Wikstrom of Mattaforma and Jennifer Shakun of the New England Forestry Foundation on circular bioeconomies, storytelling, and the necessity of reframing our relationship with timber.

Interviewers Sarah Farley and Livy Li (M.Arch ‘25)

P!: What does it mean for a forest to be managed in a sustainable way?

JS: People don’t realize the amount of science that’s behind a lot of forest management decisions. Silviculture is the art and science of cutting trees. The idea is that a forester, or forester and logger working together, thinks about a whole bunch of factors when they’re considering what trees to take, what trees to leave, the spacing of those, and what species. It’s almost like you’re putting on these glasses, and you’re trying to see what that future forest is going to look like after you’ve come in and done this intervention. What outcome are we going for?

LW: If you were to exchange the words forest for building, it would be the exact same process as how we design spaces for humans. We think about the qualitative aspects: the spacing, the scale, the air flow, the filtration of water - resources for living things. It is a design mentality. The folks that are making these decisions about the forests have this goal in mind, and that goal is a lifespan of the design. How many generations does this need to sustain? How long will this building be here? How long will this forest be here?

P!: How would you define a circular bioeconomy?

LW: I think the definition can evolve. It’s like “life cycle.” What are you going to measure and how far are you going to measure it? There’s no common agreed-upon definition. Life cycle analysis folks have constant debates about how far to measure carbon and energy. It’s a big problem, because people can say anything. They can say, “This is neutral”, and you’re not sure what that means. When did they start measuring? To what extent? Or, “This is net negative.” Is that because you just measure this much? Or, is it because you did a whole lot of measurement? So, circularity is another one of those qualitative words that indicates a quality without a scientific background. This needs to be defined in our industry – that is my opinion.

If we were to talk about circularity of timber in general, my understanding is that the U.S. grows far more trees than we harvest. Far more. There is a surplus every year; that’s why there’s a lot of possibility and potential market in that space. There is already this idea that timber can be replanted and it regrows after you harvest, so it’s circular in that way, which is a low bar for defining circularity.

I think as our bar raises, and becomes more specific and accurate, circularity to me would include two things. [The first is] biodiversity: resilience in the soil, resilience in the forest, which extends its lifespan. What that also means is that we are using biodiverse products in our spaces, and that immediately to me is an aesthetic challenge. I mean, imagine a red maple city. That would be a dark place, really highly saturated, full wood walls. It would be a totally different looking place. Are we ready for that? Full-on biodiverse, wooden space, wood city? I don’t know. I think that’s what makes it exciting. And then, the second thing is the ability to return to the landscape once it’s used in a building, and that is a big challenge right now because of the adhesives that are used.

P!: The term bioeconomy became popular around the mid-2000s. Has the bioeconomy always existed and now we’re naming it? Or, is this truly a new form of economic activity?

LW: I think that’s a history question. The two things that come to mind are Karl Marx and industrialization. Around the time that he was writing Capital, he talked about the introduction of these non-circular processes. We used to grow food outside of our house or in town, and food was locally sourced. All of our waste went into that soil, whether it was clothing or human waste, and there was a cycle there. As soon as that split happened we needed to invent fertilizer. We needed to outsource it from a different place. Globalization really changed the way that we think about circularity now. We’ve been searching for a definition since. Can the city that doesn’t grow its own food really be circular? Can a state be circular? Can a country be circular? What’s good about globalism? What’s bad about local sourcing? That’s been a huge question since fertilizer was invented.

The second question is, have we always been doing it? It’s true, the wood industry has been the backbone of the U.S. forever, especially because we have such a dependence on single family home typologies that rely on stick frame construction. A lot of that has to do with the way that our economy is supported—the value of property, westward expansion, the Homestead Act, the development of suburban conditions that propped up certain groups and not others; national wood enabled all of that to happen. I think that’s my interest in timber. It’s very political and that aspect is not going away anytime soon. There’s this report going around Europe by the World Resources Initiative that was published last year (The Global Land Squeeze, 2023). Everyone’s kind of on-edge about it, saying that wood is not a climate-friendly building material and pointing out all these problems with the industry. It’s really good data, but people don’t see those reports as “here’s how we need to improve,” but rather, “here’s why we should just walk away from wood.”

JS: The scale is what’s really different. There are just way more people on the planet using many more resources. Some of those old ideas and models were actually pretty good, but how do we do it now in a way that doesn’t devastate the natural resources that we’re pulling from?

P!: Jumping further down the supply chain, are there any unconventional wood products or methods of construction that you feel are currently underexplored architecturally?

LW: The ones that come to mind right away are ones that are challenging aesthetically, or at least ones that folks don’t typically gravitate towards, which are small diameter tree species products. So you have OSB, or plywood, LVL; these kinds of particle board type products utilize small diameter trees which helps us avoid cutting down older growth and brings money into the forest. The more small diameter trees we can use, the more money a forest might have to be resilient and to be biodiverse, potentially.

Mass timber is a sticky phrase, which is why I think it’s interesting. Everyone has this image in their mind of what that means and it’s, technically, still very unconventional. A lot of jurisdictions haven’t changed the code to allow it to be used commonly in buildings. I think that our understanding of its properties, when to use it, how to use it best, are happening at the moment and are a little bit at stake. If we don’t lean into that and build our education and our knowledge of that space, then we could risk outsourcing from the forest, overbuilding, overdesigning, overspec’ing, and it would make that whole possibility seem wasteful or extractive. That feels very underexplored.

JS: On small diameter trees, for some land owners, you get what are sometimes called dog hair stands.Think really tiny trees, really close together and, eventually, if you leave them alone, natural mortality will happen. We would like to go in there and do what’s called pre-commercial or early commercial thinning. It costs to do that, because the trees are really small and you have to use different equipment and since they’re small, it’s a small volume. It’s not worth very much, and there’s not a huge market to buy that material and use it for anything. But, if you’re able to do those interventions, what you end up with is more space and light for the trees that are left. Those start putting on volume. They’re going to keep sequestering carbon. They’re going to keep growing, and they’re going to grow into higher quality trees down the road that can go into more solid wood products, longer lived products that store carbon. So the more that we have robust markets for different products that use the lower value stuff, the easier it is to do a whole suite of different forestry practices. I’m really excited about some stuff on the horizon, more in the R&D phase still, that will hopefully come to fruition. The University of Maine, in their Advanced Structures & Composites Center, has been messing around with 3D printing with bio-based materials and trying to use wood waste for that.

P!: Speaking of the future, maybe speculatively or aspirationally, what questions come to mind when you consider American forestry practices for the next 100 years?

JS: I think the definition of sustainable forestry has evolved over time. It started out with what was often just a fairly simple idea of sustained yield of timber. That definition has grown and expanded for conventional forestry to include more and more factors like protecting rare and endangered species, identifying and protecting soil, thinking about wildlife in general, and how we affect the communities in and around the forests that are being managed. I think that expansive definition is continuing to expand now to embrace climate, because climate as a major issue was not really part of the equation when we thought about what it meant to do sustainable forestry twenty years ago. That’s the newest frontier that everyone in the forestry community across the country, the globe really, is trying to better define and reach a consensus on. It’s been coded as just an environmental issue even though climate change is much bigger than that.

LW: On top of that, I would say that there’s been a lot of interest in these more difficult-to-measure topics like how we tell the history of the forest in a different way. If you grow up only hearing about devastation, clearing and westward expansion, you’ll think that all logging is bad. We can’t understand how harvesting would be good. But, if you grow up thinking about our relationship with the forest as mutually beneficial, that we have this reciprocity, that there are all these examples of how that’s worked in a much more ancient way. That, to me, is much more generational. One hundred years from now, if a kid is like “I’m super excited to go visit this new type of forest,” that would be my fantasy. You get to grow up in this atmosphere of excitement about engaging with nature and active participation in nature, not this “let’s fence it off and no one’s allowed to go up there” type of thing.

JS: I think that’s so true. There’s a disconnect that’s happened, and it leads to unintended consequences. Living in a suburban or urban area of Boston, you hear folks not feeling good about cutting trees or using trees. But, we’re actually using a lot of [harvested] materials everyday. We just don’t think about where they come from anymore. So remaking, rebuilding that connection — that’s the dream.

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Volume 10, Issue 00
April 1, 2024

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