By Todd Groh, VDOF Forest Resource Management Program Manager
The Reforestation of Timberlands (RT) Program is turning fifty years old this year. This program, managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), is a good example of what can be done when people come together for a common goal.
More than fifty years ago, Virginia looked a lot different than it does today. Although forests were still prevalent across the state, many more trees – especially pines – were being harvested to meet the great need for wood and wood products. Trees were being cut quicker than they could grow back. Timber industry leaders came together with Virginia’s General Assembly to revise the forest products tax paid by forest industry, with a goal of developing a funding source that could encourage landowners to plant pines on their recently harvested forestlands. The General Assembly agreed to match the industry’s taxes, and the Reforestation of Timberlands Program was born.
After fifty years, the RT Program is still going strong, assisting landowners with a portion of their pine reforestation costs. Practices covered by the program include site preparation, planting fast-growing pine seedlings, and “releasing” pine plantations from weed competition. The RT incentive rates for landowners have varied over the years, but on average, RT has reimbursed between thirty and forty percent of a landowner’s reforestation costs.
Virginia’s forest industry and state government have provided over 94 million dollars in taxes and matching funds, all aimed at keeping Virginia green and growing healthy forests. Since the program began, Virginia forest landowners have answered the challenge, spending over 144 million dollars of their own funds for replanting and growing pine forests.
You may wonder how our state is doing after fifty years of the RT Program. Does Virginia still have a deficit in tree growth as compared to harvest? The answer, happily, is no. On average, Virginia is growing nearly twice as much timber as is being harvested each year, and those trees grow faster and have better quality than ever before. In doing so, they capture and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, protect and improve water quality, and provide important wildlife habitat. This model of success will soon be used in designing an incentive program to help landowners improve their hardwood forests too.
By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
Pleasant Grove Park in Fluvanna County offers a nature-rich experience for visitors and a variety of habitats for wildlife. Behind the scenes, it’s also a model for collaboration between county government and a plethora of partners.
VDOF has been a part of several education and stewardship projects at the park, including establishment of a tree identification trail, providing trees for planting, and most recently, maintenance burning of fields to improve habitat.
On an April morning, members of VDOF’s Jefferson work team performed a prescribed burn of some grass fields at the park. The park plans to maintain these fields as early successional wildlife habitat, potentially establishing warm season grasses in the future. Forester Chuck Wright made all the preliminary arrangements for the burn, including meeting with the county Board of Supervisors to get approval to burn in the park. Although it was fire season, VDOF obtained a spring 4PM Burning Law exemption, which can be used for wildlife habitat maintenance and improvement if conditions allow.
Conducting the burn were senior area forester David Powell, forester Jonah Fielding, and forest technicians Zach Long and Matthew Hutchins. Fluvanna Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Spitzer came out to observe, as did Master Naturalist volunteers Walter Hussey and Doug Rogers. Doug used his camera drone to photograph the burn from the air.
As with any prescribed fire, safety came first. The fields were near Fluvanna High School and a main road, so many factors had to align for a safe and successful burn. Weather forecasts were checked in the days leading up to the burn. Fire lines that had been plowed around the area weeks earlier were refreshed with the bulldozer. The morning of the burn, the county closed most of the park, and VDOT put up a road sign warning motorists of a burn in progress. Burn boss David Powell checked the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction before sending his team out with drip torches to light the first field. He continued to monitor the weather periodically, and an afternoon drop in humidity meant ending early, even though part of one field didn’t get burned.
In contrast to the early successional fields, some areas of the park are being converted to forest. Walter Hussey is one of Pleasant Grove’s most active volunteers, and he has been involved with tree planting in many areas of the park. On a recent drizzly day, he and seven other members of the Rivanna chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists planted American chestnuts near the community gardens at Pleasant Grove. Jerre Creighton, research forester with VDOF, provided seedlings and nuts – a mix of pure American chestnut and hybrids that are 15/16 American. The hybrid trees are the result of years of backcross breeding with Chinese chestnut. Researchers hope the trees’ Chinese heritage brings along genes for long-term resistance to chestnut blight.
Master Naturalists are just one of the groups who collaborate with the county on stewardship and education at Pleasant Grove. There are also local Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards working to improve the park environment. And, as one volunteer at the planting put it, “Some of us wear more than one hat.”
County school students are also stewards of Pleasant Grove. In fact, the chestnuts joined a field of other wildlife-friendly hardwoods, including white oak, red mulberry, dogwood, black cherry, and American plum, that were planted on Earth Day two years ago by county first and second graders.
It’s not often you find a local park with over twenty miles of hiking trails, river access, a dog park, pollinator garden, a historic home and museum, and more. Pleasant Grove Park is already a fabulous spot to visit, and thanks to the work of many partners, it just keeps getting better.
By Deya Ramsden, VDOF Middle James River Forest Watershed Project Coordinator
A newly expanded riparian forest buffer in Nelson County is not only protecting the Rockfish River, but also enhancing wildlife habitat and beautifying a local trail.
Last winter, Rockfish Valley Foundation President Peter Agelasto met with Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff to discuss improving the Rockfish Valley Trail. His idea was to expand the existing buffer, to better shade the river and protect it from sediment and pollutants, while also diversifying the plant species composition within the buffer. James River Buffer Program Coordinator Deya Ramsden, and area foresters Martha Warring and B.J. Butler, worked together to create a plan that included planting 570 native shrubs and trees, managing invasive species, and recommending future maintenance. The project was funded through the James River Buffer Program, with matching funds from the Virginia Trees for Clean Program.
Conservation Services Incorporated (CSI) was contracted to install and maintain the planting. On March 23, CSI planted seedlings, complete with tree shelters, in a 1 ¾-acre area along the trail. The shrub species were chosen for multiple reasons: flowers that attract pollinators, fruits or seeds for birds, ability to form colonies from the roots and thus discourage invasive species, and ability to thrive in the partial shade of a forest understory. The species planted were buttonbush, hazel-alder, red osier and silky dogwoods, false indigo and southern arrowwood. The tree species selected included persimmon, pawpaw, and red mulberry, which have fruits favored by wildlife (and people); sycamore, river birch, and yellow-poplar, which are fast growing pioneer species that frequently colonize streambanks; redbud, with early spring flowers valued by people and pollinators; and pin oak, a long-lived, slow grower that adapts well to wet conditions.
The shelters, or “tubes,” installed by CSI protect the one-year-old seedlings from trampling, deer browse, and vole damage, and they aid in maintenance. The shelters provide a favorable growing environment, free from wind and drastic temperature changes, giving the seedlings time to focus on getting tall. Shelters are removed once the tree extends three inches out of the top of the tube. VDOF recommends using bird netting to cover the top of tree tubes to prevent songbirds from entering and becoming trapped in the tubes. Tree planters should leave a quarter-sized opening in the net for the tree shoot to emerge and remove the nets when the tree begins emerging from the tube to prevent the stem from becoming entangled as it grows.
CSI will return in late spring to apply herbicide, in order to reduce weed competition around the seedlings and target invasive species along the trail. The first three years is a crucial time period for young seedlings, and maintenance is required to allow seedlings to gain growth and outcompete the weeds. Not many people realize that fescue, the most common pasture grass, is a non-native, aggressive species that competes with seedlings for moisture and nutrients. If grass is not controlled around the seedlings, the buffer may not survive at a level that results in a future forest. During planting, a small area is scalped to remove the grass, but follow-up maintenance with herbicide, mowing or weed-whacking is needed to control grass as the seedlings get established. Foresters will inspect the buffer annually to assess its progress and adjust maintenance requirements over the next three years.
Future plans for the trail include addressing areas where compaction is causing concentrated flow of sediment to reach the river. Several best management practices (BMPs) can mitigate these conditions, including temporarily blocking some access points to give them time to “rest.” In the meantime, consider a visit to the lovely Rockfish Valley, where you can walk the trail and envision those young trees grown into a future forest.
About the James River Buffer Program
The James River Buffer Program began in 2019 and is funded through a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. The program is carried out through partnering organizations, VDOF and the James River Association (JRA), who draw on their expertise and community connections to help landowners install buffers. The program is turn-key, not a cost-share, offering installation of seedlings, materials, and three years of follow-up maintenance and guidance at no cost. This flexible program is open to any landowner in need of a buffer. Through VDOF, rural, residential, commercial, and county or city owned lands are eligible for enrollment, while JRA focuses on rural lands with the highest priority of buffer need. The application process is simple. Learn more and request a consultation, or reach out to your local VDOF forester for more information.
About the Virginia Trees for Clean Water Program (VTCW)
VDOF’s Virginia Trees for Clean Water (VTCW) program is funded by the USDA Forest Service Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forestry Program, Virginia Water Quality Improvement Fund, and Department of Environmental Quality’s Chesapeake Bay Regulatory and Accountability Program. VTCW is designed to improve water quality across the Commonwealth through on-the-ground efforts to plant trees where they are needed most. Goals are to expand tree canopy, positively impact water quality, increase energy conservation practices, advance community health, and grow recreation and educational opportunities. VTCW provides matching funds to the James River Buffer Program for projects that meet the program criteria. In a typical year, the program awards grants of up to $14,000 per proposal, with an aim of a 50/50 match for the project. Contact Lara Johnson for more information.
Photography by Amanda Shields, The Mariners’ Museum and Park
Right in the heart of Newport News, you will soon be able to see a shortleaf pine forest. On a perfectly sunny March day, 700 shortleaf seedlings from the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) nursery found a new home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park.
With an historic range covering parts of twenty-two states and 282 million acres, shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) is one of four pine species that were once prevalent in the Hampton Roads area. The species was found in a variety of forest types including pure stands, loblolly-shortleaf, and shortleaf pine-oak. However, thanks to fire suppression, land use changes, and a preference for the faster growing loblolly pine, shortleaf is now found in just a fraction of its original range. It is now considered a diminished species throughout much of the Southeast.
The planting project was the result of a partnership developed between VDOF and the Mariners’ Museum and Park that began last year. The park approached VDOF to create an updated management plan for their approximately 300 acres of forested land—a beloved escape from the urban setting of Newport News. While completing the plan, I noted that the park contained stands of pine, mixed pine and hardwood, and mixed hardwood. Interestingly, all four of the native pines – loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and some young planted longleaf pines – were present. I also found several areas where invasive species had overtaken the native vegetation, as is common in urban parks. One such area had also been damaged during Hurricane Isabelle in 2003 and had a sparse overstory. My advice was to clear the invasive species and do a restoration planting in these areas.
Given the decline of shortleaf pine in Virginia, the park staff chose it as the species to plant. The sparse overstory made the species a good choice for the site. The park received a Virginia Trees for Clean Water Grant to assist with the planting. To prepare the site beforehand, Dave Kennedy and Graham King from the Mariners’ Museum and Park set to work with volunteers, clearing out the Callery pear, Japanese privet, English ivy, and other invasive species.
On the day of the planting, volunteers from the Peninsula Master Gardeners and Newport News Master Gardeners, led by Dave Kennedy, Graham King, and Erica Deale from the Mariners’ Museum and Park, worked diligently to get the bareroot seedlings into the ground. VDOF staff Scott Bachman, Kendall Topping, Stephen Jasenak and I all came out to assist with the planting as well.
The VDOF Blackwater team looks forward to seeing the seedlings grow and continuing to build this partnership with the Mariners’ Museum and Park.
By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
With recent warm weather, Virginia’s woods are greening fast. After a dormant winter, plants gear up for photosynthesis again, using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make food. You might be familiar with some early spring wildflowers that emerge on the forest floor, taking full advantage of the leafless canopy to gather some sun of their own before being shaded out by trees. Unfortunately, the shrub layer in many Virginia woodlands is full of some sneaky sun stealers – invasive plants.
Several of our most problematic invasive shrubs are among the first plants to leaf out in spring. What’s more, they often lose their leaves later than our native woody species. One study from Penn State estimated that invasive shrubs may get more than two months of additional growing time, when you add up their extra spring and fall leafiness. This gives the shrubs a competitive edge over native shrubs. Early leaf growth can also shade out understory plants that already have a pretty short window of opportunity to gather sun.
In March, the most obvious invasive shrub in the Charlottesville area is autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). The silver-backed leaves give a pale green haze to many an understory, showing us just how prolific this shrub is. Soon after leaf-out, autumn olive’s sickly-sweet fragrance will permeate the woods, followed in summer and fall by silver-dotted red berries.
Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) is semi-evergreen in central Virginia, usually retaining a few winter leaves. By March, abundant new leaves are well on their way. Privet is another invasive whose flowers (in June) have a cloying scent and whose berries attract birds. In this case, the berries are dark blue and linger into early winter.
Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is the prickly bane of many trailsides. It often grows in fairly shady areas, but this early leafer has little competition for sunlight in March. This shrub spreads not only from seed, but by spreading from the roots and stem tips that touch the ground. It can form dense thickets that are impossible to walk through without bloodshed.
Some of the bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) bloomed in late winter, well before the leaves appeared, but the shrubs are greening up now. The related Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) vine is mainly evergreen but puts on a flush of new growth in spring. Although evergreens may not actively grow in winter, some continue to put on root growth, and they are definitely ready to go earlier in spring than their deciduous neighbors. Other evergreen invasives include English ivy and wintercreeper euonymus.
You can learn more about invasive shrubs and vines from Blue Ridge PRISM’s fact sheets. PRISM stands for Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management; this very active nonprofit uses education and hands-on efforts to stop the spread of invasives. VDOF’s Common Native Shrubs and Woody Vines also includes a “top ten” section of invasive species. Spring is the perfect time of year for learning to identify these pesky plants. Know them – DON’T grow them!
By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
The woods are alive, with the sound of … frog calls? Yes, it must be spring in Virginia!
Beginning in late winter, ponds, swamps, sloughs and vernal pools become concert halls for breeding choruses of frogs and toads, known collectively as anurans (nerd-word of the day). Joining them are the much quieter – but no less numerous – salamanders. These amphibians spend most of the year living in the surrounding woodlands, mostly hidden under vegetation and logs. On rainy nights in early spring, they begin their mass migrations to wet areas for a reproductive frenzy.
Vernal pools are especially important breeding areas for many amphibians. These pools are seasonally flooded wetlands that occur in low spots of forests, floodplains, and meadows, usually filling in late fall or winter and drying up before summer. Their temporary nature ensures that fish can’t live in them, which is good for amphibians, because fish would eat their eggs and larvae.
I recently joined a team of Virginia Master Naturalists from the Central Piedmont Chapter to sample two vernal pools on the Cumberland State Forest. As one of their citizen science projects, the group usually monitors pools at High Bridge Trail State Park near Farmville. The park is closed this spring for repairs to the bridge, so Master Naturalists Al and Betsy Lookofsky approached State Forest staff about the possibility of monitoring pools on the Cumberland instead. Forester Shannon Lewis provided a map showing several pool locations, and the group chose two sites to monitor every other week from late February through late May. They will send their data to Dr. Sujan Henkanaththegedara, a biology professor at Longwood University.
For each pool sampled, the team took pH, air and water temperature readings, and measured the pool’s maximum diameter and depth. These measurements vary with rainfall over the winter and spring. In very dry years, pools may fill late or dry out early, and this affects the reproductive success of the amphibians that breed there.
The volunteers carefully picked through samples scooped from different areas of the pools, noting the species of amphibians and the presence of other organisms, such as aquatic sowbugs and chironomid midge larvae. On this sampling date, they found marbled salamander larvae (hatched in fall) and many spotted salamander egg masses (newly deposited). I was hoping to see some fairy shrimp, but alas, there were none.
Fairy shrimp, as well as several salamander and frog species, are considered vernal pool obligates, meaning they generally require vernal pools for reproduction, and their presence is an indicator of a true vernal pool. Spotted salamanders are one of these obligates. Their gelatinous egg masses are easy to spot – they may be clear, milky, or even green when colonized by a specific type of algae.
Marbled salamanders are another obligate species. By the time the other amphibians arrive in late winter, marbled larvae usually have a head start. That’s because the adults actually lay eggs in the fall, under logs or leaf litter in the dry pools. The females guard the eggs until rains come; if the pool fills late, the eggs can overwinter and hatch later. The larvae we found were already a couple of inches long, sporting obvious frilly external gills.
Because vernal pools serve as critical habitat for so many species, it’s important to be aware of and careful with them. Pools are vulnerable to many threats, such as development, pollution, and climate change. Although Cumberland is a working forest, the VDOF foresters are careful to protect vernal pools and the adjacent woodlands, noting their location on forest maps so they won’t be accidentally impacted by forest management activities. The presence of these pools could easily go unnoticed, highlighting the importance of landowners becoming very familiar with their own woods in order to protect natural features like these.
Occasionally, other bodies of water can function as vernal pools. Recently, at Mint Springs Valley Park in Crozet, I came upon a chorus of wood frogs (usually vernal pool obligates) calling from what appeared to be the stone foundation of an old building. Several frogs dove for cover when I approached, and the water was full of wood frog eggs, which look like clumps of floating grapes.
If you want to see egg masses or larvae, put on your boots and check out the lower spots in your woods. But hurry! In a few months the pools will dry up, and the critters will crawl off into the surrounding forest until next year’s Spring Break pool party.
By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Work Area
A number of years back, a hurricane made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and forced her way through the southeastern coastal area of Virginia on the way to dumping flooding rains on the remainder of the Commonwealth. That storm was Isabel. In her wake, she left 32 people dead and more than 1.85 billion dollars in damage.
Directly in the path of the storm were Chesapeake and Suffolk. In addition to homes and businesses, the forests in these cities were significantly impacted. The forests of the Great Dismal Swamp, historically the last refuge of native Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) in Virginia, were not spared.
You can imagine what happens when very soft swamp soils with little mineral content, tall mature timber, and high winds meet. Large swaths of timber were toppled by the force of Isabel’s winds. This “blown down” timber was eventually salvage logged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the caretakers of the swamp. In a happy accident, this disturbance resulted in a flush of Atlantic white- cedar regeneration arising from buried seed in the organic soil.
Atlantic white-cedar to the casual observer (myself included) appears identical to eastern redcedar, a common Virginia native tree. Their forms and shapes are similar, as is their scale-like evergreen foliage. How might you tell them apart, you ask? Their preferred growing sites are anything but similar. Atlantic white-cedar is found naturally on organic soils, which form in places with a high water table, where organic debris like leaves, needles, branches, logs, and even the occasional dead deer do not fully decompose. In a dry upland site, this organic material is mixed with the mineral soil through the action of animals and weathering. In the swamp, however, this “unincorporated” material becomes essentially compost, or peat. It is a productive but very wet soil type, at least during normal times.
Years after Isabel led to regeneration of white-cedar in the swamp, a drought settled in over southeastern Virginia. Eventually, a thunderstorm brewed over the Great Dismal, and a lightning bolt flashed in a cloud-to-ground strike, hitting the now dry organic soil. It was likely several days before a visible plume of smoke could be seen over the swamp, and a “peat fire” was underway.
Unfortunately, organic soil is made of carbon, just like coal (which, if given enough time and the proper conditions, this “peat soil” might become). This means that if it catches on fire, like it did during the thunderstorm, it can burn for a very long time. In fact, it tends to burn until most of the organic soil, which may be several feet deep, is consumed. This makes peat fires extremely hard to extinguish. Fire crews from all over the country came to the swamp to battle the fire, but by the time they were able to moisten the organic soil by blocking ditches and pumping water, much of the newly regenerated Atlantic white-cedar had been destroyed.
Today there are acres of shallow waters and, in some cases, invasive wetland plants like Phragmites australiswhere the regenerating white-cedar forest once was. Most of the organic soil was destroyed, but in some areas there is enough left to support an Atlantic white-cedar forest. Without a seed source, however, the forest needed the help of scientists and foresters to get started.
Jen Wright, a biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp, and Josh Bennicoff, the Garland Gray Nursery manager, entered into a partnership early in 2020 to grow Atlantic white-cedar seedlings in the VDOF containerized nursery. This was test, as VDOF had not attempted to grow this species before. After securing “pelletized” seeds from the North Carolina Forest Service nursery, Josh was able to plant the very tiny seeds using our pine seed equipment. Had they not been pelletized, Josh would have had to plant thousands of poppy-seed sized seeds by hand! By midsummer this group of test seedlings were well on their way to being ready for planting in their new home. At the end of the growing season, the year-old seedlings were packaged and transported — destined for planting in the burn-scarred area.
In early December of 2020, volunteers gathered at the Dismal Swamp office on a Saturday morning to take the two thousand or so seedlings out to the planting sites. This wasn’t just any planting though; to get to the sites, the volunteers often had to canoe! The seedlings, though small, will hopefully find the swamp a great home and enhance the efforts to reforest the burned area with Atlantic white-cedar.
If the plantings are successful and become established, hopefully this partnership between the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Garland Gray Forestry Center will grow and positively improve other habitats on the Refuge. We look forward to following the growth of these seedlings into the future!
By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
A few weeks ago, on a cold but sunny day, I visited Paul State Forest in Rockingham County for the first time. It was a great place for a winter woods walk.
The Paul became a State Forest in 1962 – a gift to the state from a local judge, John Paul. The forest is included in the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) list of Virginia Birding Trail sites. DWR describes it quite accurately as “an island of forest in a sea of farmland.” The Paul is located on Clover Hill Road near Dayton, just north of Ottobine (map). Look for the old-school wooden sign at the parking area!
The Paul’s 173 acres of mature hardwoods and scattered pines provide winter foraging and roosting habitat for many birds. The day I was there, the woods and edges revealed a typical winter bird crew: red-bellied and downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, and northern cardinal. I hope to go back in late April, when the trees should be alive with migrating warblers.
Stumps reveal that trees are sometimes harvested from this forest. Forest management is one key distinction between State Forests and State Parks, with which they are sometimes confused. State Forests are managed for multiple uses, or sometimes quite specific ones, depending on deed restrictions set forth by the donor. Many of our State Forests pay their own way as true “working” forests. In fact, no state general funds are used to maintain State Forests, and 25% of any timber sale revenue is returned to the county where the forest is located.
Winter is the perfect time to study and appreciate tree bark in a hardwood forest like the Paul: the pale shagginess of white oak, diamond-patterned furrows of mockernut hickory, the “burnt cornflake” look of black cherry, and lots of other interesting textures. I found an unexpected species during my walk at the Paul: bigtooth aspen. I recognized its smooth, olive-tinged bark, then confirmed my identification with some nearby fallen leaves.
In winter, the understory of the Paul is quite open, in part because goats were posted there to eat invasive plants last summer. Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to the native spicebush – perhaps because it tastes like lemon furniture polish? The spicebush flower buds were already showing yellow when I visited; if you visit now (mid-March), they should be in full bloom.
Like many of our State Forests, the Paul is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It has a small parking area on a country road, and no facilities other than a few picnic tables. But the views from the parking lot and forest edges are lovely, and the forest roads are easy to hike, making it a perfect place for families with young children. Kids outdoors tend to find their own entertainment, and everybody can learn unexpected things from a walk in the woods. (For example, after pulling a large pine branch off the path during my walk, I discovered that hand sanitizer is great for removing pine sap from hands.)
In these days of virtual instruction, why not create your own field trip with a visit to a State Forest? You can take along some of Virginia Department of Forestry’s activity ideas for kids to try outdoors. Bonus: They’re fun for adults too!
During a sunny March morning, a team from the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Virginia Department of Agricultural Consumer Services (VDACS) toured an exciting mass timber construction project in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. The building will eventually house the headquarters office of Apex Clean Energy – a locally-based wind and solar energy company – as well as headquarters for Hourigan Development and Riverbend Development.
Architects at William McDonough + Partners designed the building to be constructed using mass timber products – a catch-all term for engineered wood materials used in construction, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels and glued-laminated (glulam) beams.
Contemporary mass timber construction has become an increasingly desirable option for sustainability-focused clients. Eric Ross of William McDonough + Partners explained that his firm works with a number of clients – both in the United States and internationally – that choose mass timber construction for sustainability, function, safety, and aesthetics.
Mass timber structures serve as sustainable carbon solutions throughout their entire lifecycle. Trees grown for mass timber products are a renewable resource; they will capture and store carbon until they are harvested, at which point new trees are planted to replace them. The resulting wood products, such as boards and beams, will continue to sequester carbon for decades beyond the harvest.
The use of mass timber materials goes beyond the lifecycle as a building. Typically, when a building reaches the end of its use, it’s demolished and the debris is sent to a landfill. Wood materials in mass timber construction are prefabricated and assembled in ways that extend their usefulness – certain materials can be disassembled and reused in the wood industry.
Concerns about fire protection once limited the use of timber in certain tiers of building codes – a legitimate concern (as wood is combustible) that mass timber manufacturers have taken seriously. Frequent fire rating studies have demonstrated that mass timber materials meet or exceed standards for fire safety in certain tiers of construction. Because the laminated beams are so thick, only the surface will char when against flames. The standard glue used in CLT and glulam products contains fire retardants to protect against longer burning fires. The manufacturers continue work to improve the efficacy and environmental impact of chemicals in the glue.
So, what’s it like working with CLT and glulam in construction? The Apex building project team agreed that cost and effort are comparable to using other materials (such as steel or concrete), and in some aspects easier or quicker. As projects become more common, everyone learns and the process improves, says Ross.
Because mass timber is rising in popularity, you need to lock in requests for prefabricated materials very early on in the process. The prefab nature of the materials inherently requires plenty of up-front design work and limits the ability to make changes during construction; but the structures can also be erected more quickly. The necessary collaboration and engagement among building owners, architects, designers, manufacturers, and construction crews ultimately results in superior project outcomes.
Depending on the region, crews with experience in mass timber construction may be readily available. But even working in areas where the workforce is new to mass timber construction has not presented notable obstacles for construction crews. As mass timber becomes more common, the project managers said they expect that sourcing skilled workers will only get easier.
The wood in the Apex building will largely remain exposed as a design feature – a notable benefit of working with CLT. Building owners of mass timber structures often decide to leave portions of the wood (such as structural beams and ceilings) exposed for aesthetic purposes. This saves both time and cost during the finishing process.
The wood used in this structure is black spruce sourced from Canada. Both the VDOF team and the building crews believe that mass timber has a strong future in the southeastern United States, where native softwood species are comparable to black spruce.
Given how much foresters love trees – and by extension, wood – it’s no surprise that the VDOF team was enthusiastic about seeing this distinctive project in person. “Quite simply, it’s really exciting to see such a large structure being built with wood in our state,” says Virginia’s State Forester Rob Farrell. At six stories and more than 130,000 square feet, the Apex building will be the tallest mass timber structure in Virginia. “I’m looking forward to seeing more of this construction in our region and for Virginia to serve as a leader for sustainable mass timber production,” says Farrell.