Healing a Burning World One Tree at a Time
In mid-July I moved from the New York metro area to a small town in New Hampshire, after many seasons of summering there. Not long after, I began to see logging trucks on the local roads and highways. When I asked why at the lumber yard, the folks explained that “everyone and his brother with a stand of timber has been harvesting to fill the shortage.” Post-COVID wood prices have remained high not only because the pandemic shut down sawmills, but also because after 2008 the building industry stalled, and producers cut their staff and mill facilities.
As I stacked firewood for the winter ahead, I worried that my sister and brother, longtime residents of California, would be threatened by one of the big fires, as they had a few years ago. I grew up out west and understand the relationship between mountain ecosystems and hillside suburban developments on their edges. I remain concerned every summer and fall that my family may be in danger.
Common Edge is singularly effective in providing good information on the relationship between the built environment and climate change, and I am less qualified to write on the subject, except as an architect who must make energy efficient, safe buildings. I am more expert on aspects of building and landscape conservation, as I have practiced for more than 40 years. My experience tells me that the two disciplines will become intertwined as we confront sea-level rise and the destruction wrought on historic sites by climate disasters.
It is ironic that the American city with the hottest climate spikes takes the name of the mythic beast associated with rebirth.
The metaphor of a world in flames has taken on new meanings over the past decade, as democracies seemed to smolder and catch fire amid hate crimes, xenophobia, white-supremacy movements, and Trumpist dystopian scenarios of doom. As a child of the 1960s, I could only relate the political climate to the years of Black Panther and student activism. But there is another, more ancient metaphor that always comes to mind after the last coals have turned to ash: the Phoenix. It is ironic that the American city with the hottest climate spikes takes the name of the mythic beast associated with fire and rebirth. Two of my cousins live there, and they see nothing ironic in their desert paradise heating up; they’re wealthy enough to afford the houses, and the water, to maintain a Sunset, Arizona Highways, lifestyle.
Now that Lake Powell, long the poster child of pre-peak-oil power junkies, is drying up and driving away boaters and other tourists, westerners are looking at ways not only to save water but also to use wind turbines rather than hydro power to run massive air conditioning and irrigation systems. Another unmistakable irony is that the lake is at the end of the Colorado River basin that includes the Grand Canyon, a symbol of geological time and the erosion caused by water courses. It seems only a matter of time before western firefighters despair of running short of the water needed to fight the hellish blazes that are destroying the California Dream. John Muir and Kevin Starr must be looking down on their beloved state with chagrin and no little anger at those who refused to heed their warnings.
How will we rebuild after the conflagration has spent its fury and fuel? One obvious solution comes from the forest’s natural reseeding and greening: timber grown and harvested sustainably. Trees are still the most efficient consumers of carbon dioxide and remain one of our best building materials. New mass timber technology will give architects more options for using it in the coming years. The western forest will, with watershed management and careful stewardship, come back. It may grow faster farther north, in Canada, but leaders must understand the dynamics of climate and make informed decisions about how to plan for new lumbering techniques and manufacturing of forest products.
I’ve always loved to build with wood and have restored and conserved many historic timber structures over several decades. Some of my colleagues in engineering have also relished working on timber buildings. The subject is fascinating and continually yields new discoveries about how inventive our ancestors were in finding ways to span openings and roof buildings with sticks. I recently wrote about the Chinese system of bracket-set construction, only one of many ancient timber traditions. Despite our fascination with mass timber, there is no need to reinvent the truss.
On the subject of trusses: architecture students and faculty at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., made headlines with a project that truly invokes the Phoenix. On July 26 the school began a 10-day timber-framing workshop supervised by Handshouse Studio (a New England educational organization focused on traditional timber-frame construction) that eventually produced an exact, species-specific wood truss like those lost in the April 2019 fire at Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral. The product of their labor is now on display in the National Building Museum, not far from the CU campus: impressive and beautiful simply as an artifact.
The design of the truss is relatively conventional but remains symbolic of “la forêt” that stood for centuries above the stone vaults of the famed Gothic cathedral. It is remarkable that these trusses remained in place for so long—a case for the durability and strength of wood as a building material. Once ignited however, the huge oak timbers supporting the roof burned in a matter of hours in a conflagration that will be remembered by all Parisians, as it shocked the world.
After the disaster I wrote of the complex and disturbing dilemma that French government officials and their experts faced as they considered the task of rebuilding: Should any of the original materials that so quickly yielded to the fire be replaced in kind? And should the exterior of the building resemble the one that Parisians saw for more than a century, following an extensive 19th century reconstruction? I remarked that it was doubtful the French would consider replacing the wooden roof trusses and lamented their efforts at replacing the spire with a new, modern tower of any kind. Despite the fact that the public never saw the wooden roof structure, there was clearly a cultural image, a collective memory, of their presence before the fire consumed them. The American students and craftspeople who made the truss replica certainly treasured that memory, as do a majority of French Catholics. Could a wooden roof, with special structural and fireproofing systems, be reconstructed?
Alas, it seems French officials are not considering that question seriously, and it will be their loss if they do not. The fire at Notre Dame may come to symbolize a cultural loss of innocence as humans confront both environmental degradation and the loss of cultural heritage amidst our political and climatic dilemmas. Today we learned that a million healthy trees in Dubai were killed by the greed of mall developers allied with the country’s leader. How, indeed, shall we reclaim our humanity, its heritage, and the living organisms that make up this small planet during the next century?
As I looked at the work of these students and their mentors, I could only think of one answer: one seed, one tree, one timber at a time.
Featured image via One Tree Planted. Photo at top courtesy National Building Museum.