While some people see potential fire hazards, threats to the water supply, and miles of ugliness in the millions of acres of once–beetle infested lodge pole pines across the American West, New Town Builders sees strong, straight potential house studs.
The Denver, Colo.–based builder has become the first production home builder in Colorado to use the dead trees for the upright framing members of its homes.
“Last June a group of people came to me and said ‘Will you build a house to demonstrate that you can use lodge pole pine for structural framing?’” recalled Perry Cadman, New Town’s president. “We sat down and started talking and asked ‘Why wouldn’t we just start building all our houses with these? Can we get it in the quantity we need and get it graded” to insure quality?
The answers were “yes” and “yes,” and by early October New Town had framed a three-unit row home and was in the process of building a four-unit town home and two single-family homes in Stapleton, Colo., with the wood.
Not only is the builder using a material that would otherwise go to waste, but it is also helping to employ more Coloradans. New Town specifies that BMC West, which assembles and supplies its framing packages, source its lumber from Intermountain Resources, a Montrose, Colo.–based mill that gets the trees from within the state and employs between 300 and 400 workers in the milling and kiln-drying process.
West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau grades the wood, ensuring that it meets construction standards. Before, 90% of New Town’s framing lumber came from outside of Colorado in the Pacific Northwest, says Cadman.
“[Intermountain] tells us they can supply us with as much as we need,” he says.
Cadman said the wood looks better than the finger-jointed studs it had been using for the vertical members in its houses. “The grain is tight and we shouldn’t get much warping.” Lodge pole pine got its name because Native Americans used the extremely long, straight lumber to build lodges and teepees.
The cost of the beetle-killed lumber is equivalent to what New Town would pay for regular studs.
“Everybody comes back to me and says it must be a lot cheaper since it’s dead wood,” said Cadman. “My position is that lumber is a commodity. Why should this two-by-four, which is graded and rated for vertical studs, be any cheaper?”
That's especially true because the trees, though dead, still must be cut down and hauled out of the forests to the mill where the milling process is the same as it would be for trees that were cut live. However, since the wood is sourced closer, the transportation costs are lower.
There is a visual difference between the beetle-killed tree wood and that from a healthy tree that was cut down: the beetle-killed tree wood has a blue-gray color in some of the wood due to a fungus the beetle injects in the wood to prevent sap from flowing, which would entomb the baby beetles that hatch beneath the bark where the mother beetle lays her eggs.
The fungus effectively girdles the tree, cutting off its nutrients and causing its leaves to turn rust brown and the tree to die within a year or so after infestation. Because of Colorado’s dry climate, the trees remain viable for lumber use for as long as 10 years after their death.
But the fungus does no harm to the wood itself, said Cadman. “The forest service, the department of agriculture, they’ve done tons of studies that say [the beetles] have no impact on the timber itself as far as its strength or any of its attributes.”
Cadman said he keeps getting chastised for using the word "fungus" or describing the wood as "beetle killed." Advocates for the wood have begun calling it “blue wood” instead, referring to its color. The beetles are long gone from the wood by the time it's harvested, and they don't leave holes.
The pine beetle is not a new pest to trees in the West. Their numbers began growing to plague levels more than a decade ago, after drought stressed the trees and a series of warmer winters failed to kill as many beetles as was usual. Forests such as Colorado’s that have not been logged in many years and hold densely packed stands of older trees have become particularly infested. Typically the beetles feed on older, larger trees, but in recent years they have started to prey on smaller trees as well.
Cadman said Roughly 40 million trees across North America have been killed by the beetles, and 20 million acres in the Rocky Mountains are afflicted. “Right now we have over 100,000 trees that fall over every day,” said Cadman.
Teresa Burney is an editor for Builder magazine.