Louisiana business owner pushes for timber high-rise building

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Washington (Gray DC) -- A skyscraper made out of wood? Tokyo has approved an 11-hundred foot building and in London they're working on a nearly thousand foot wood building. But what about here at home?

Roy O. Martin wants to reshape the skylines of American cities, with a new twist on an old-fashioned material. "Can you make multi-story buildings just out of wood? And the answer is, yes," he said. Martin owns a lumber company based in Alexandria, Louisiana. He said the U.S. is lagging behind other countries in using wood to build tall buildings. Martin believes if the U.S. can catch up, it will help people in his region. "It's a great way to maximize the forest that we have right here in Louisiana," said Martin.

The American Wood Council tells us wood buildings are better for the environment, faster to build, and potentially cheaper than concrete and steel buildings. A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to explore constructing wood buildings 85 feet and taller. They sponsored a bill that directs the Department of Agriculture to use existing money to research and market that possibility. "In Louisiana," said Congressman Ralph Abraham (R-LA), "we have almost 14 million acres of forest, and if we could use more wood, it means more jobs."

The National Ready Mix Concrete Association opposes the bill. "It will take jobs away from our industry," said Kerri Leininger, the group's lobbyist. Leininger said the concrete and steel industries would lose opportunities to build. "It is not congress' role to specifically put a product in a certain area or segment of the industry. And it's certainly not congress' role to specify that product over all others, " said Leininger.

Representative Abraham wants this legislation included in the new Farm Bill. He gives it 50-50 chance of passing by the end of the year.

However, questions remain about the safety of wooden skyscrapers. According to the American Wood Council the wood used to create tall buildings isn't the stuff you find at your local lumber yard. They're prefabricated pieces created by crisscrossing laminated wood beams. Engineering professor Paul Crovella is an expert on the strength of wooden building materials and said, "a mass timber structure like this can have a durability similar to a steel or concrete building."

But a spokesman for the International Association for Firefighters doesn't think the research is definitive yet. Patrick Morrison, Assistant to the General President for Health and Safety for the International Association for Firefighters, has a lot of unanswered questions: "we want to know what happens when these buildings catch on fire, we want to know how we have to operate, how we have to protect the firefighters, and how we have to protect those that are living in those buildings."

The firefighters do support more research, but worry the Timber Innovation Act will boost wood's use before its safety is confirmed.