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A lab doing good things with wood

Bill Kight
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There’s a stately old five-story building near the southern shore of Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisc., that few people outside the Forest Service know exists.

Known as the Forest Products Laboratory, or FPL for short, I had the privilege last week of visiting a project on their campus that deserves attention.

Looking very much like an ordinary two-story house, this “advanced wood structure” is a demonstration of making a home more lasting and energy efficient.



Even the wheelchair ramp leading to the front door is an example of the practical research FPL conducts.

The planks in the ramp of the deck are made of different materials to test how well they hold up over time.



Many different treated wood products as well as wood-plastic composites that are increasingly used on home decks are part of the ramp.

On the cold stormy gray day of my visit the rainwater harvesting system was doing its job saving water that would ordinarily run off the roof unused.

This apparently successful experiment is a partnership with the University of Arizona to adapt a desert water-saving system to a cold climate.

Wanting to hurry inside out of the rain, I took the word of the tour guide that the roofing was made from recycled plastic and wood fiber.

Once inside the house, samples of the different construction materials used were passed around. These included laminated veneer and glued-laminated lumber as well as prefabricated wood I-Joists.

But the FPL guide was most proud of what she called oriented strandboard.

A direct result of FPL’s research, this panel material made from small-diameter softwoods and previously underutilized hardwoods has almost taken the place of standard plywood.

One thing that I began to notice was that each room in the house had beautiful wooden floors made of different material.

Dense forests of small “suppressed growth” trees pose a serious fire problem for communities throughout the west.

By thinning of small diameter timber such as western larch some otherwise idle timber mills have an opportunity to provide durable flooring material for homes.

One floor upstairs was made from thinned Douglas-fir from California.

Another room used “deconstructed” wood salvaged from buildings of a decommissioned WWII Army base. FPL had first devised a way to remove the toxic lead paint from the old wood.

Instruments to measure moisture were placed throughout the house.

As wet as Wisconsin was while I was there, that’s probably a good idea.

The FPL folks have also invented a wood decay test kit to help detect potentially destructive rot early enough to prevent it. The only problem is finding a manufacturer willing to mass produce it inexpensively.

I had a hard time telling the difference between where wood and wood-plastic composite materials were used in the house. The trick is getting less costly materials home builders will be able to readily use.

The advanced housing research FPL is conducting may take a few years to catch on with the public, but they made a believer out of me.

With more than 25 years of experience in federal land management agencies, Bill Kight, of Glenwood Springs, travels to exotic places like the cheesehead capital of the world to share his stories with readers every other week.


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