Professor and lecturer co-author NYT op-ed on building with sustainably-harvested mass timber

October 11, 2019

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) has allowed the construction of more wooden buildings and is quickly becoming a competitive building technology in many mid-rise buildings, according to Brian Donahue (AMST/ENVS/HIST), associate professor of American Environmental Studies, in an email to The Brandeis Hoot. 

Donahue described the technology and its environmental benefits in a New York Times article, “Let’s Fill Our Cities With Taller, Wooden Buildings. Donahue co-wrote the article with Frank Lowenstein (ENVS), chief conservation officer of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), who is also a lecturer at Brandeis; David Foster, the director of the Harvard Forest and the president of the Highstead Foundation; and several other experts who were not credited for the article. 

Mid-rise buildings, which are typically six to 12 stories high, are largely made of concrete and steel, and the energy that is used for these new buildings accounts for 11 percent of carbon emissions globally, according to the article.

“Typically, coal is used to heat these materials to temperatures over 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit in the manufacturing process. Wood, in contrast, is forged from sunlight,” said the article. “A study by scientists from Yale University and the University of Washington showed that expanding wood construction while limiting global harvesting to no more than the annual growth could produce a combination of emissions reduction and carbon sequestration equivalent to eliminating construction emissions altogether. This could take a big bite out of the carbon problem, roughly equivalent to the present contribution from all types of renewable energy.”

The Office of Sustainability announced on Sept. 27 that Brandeis will be investing in renewable energy initiatives in other areas of the country, according to an earlier Hoot article. Donahue said that while he hasn’t been involved in Brandeis sustainability efforts and was unable to comment on its new sustainability initiatives, the school could consider using “mass timber” in future construction projects. According to Donahue, several schools around New England, including UMass Amherst and Rhode Island School of Design, have used this technology. University of Arkansas and Michigan State University have also utilized CLT in recent construction projects, according to their respective websites. 

Donahue began at Brandeis in 1973 and graduated in 1982. He earned a doctorate in history from Brandeis in 1995, joined the American Studies faculty in 1997 and began chairing the environmental studies program, a position that has recently alternated between him and Professor Dan Perlman, according to Donahue.

He met Lowenstein through Perlman, who knew him from his work at The Nature Conservancy before he joined the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF). Lowenstein usually teaches at Brandeis every year and will be teaching “Land Conservation in the United States: History and Practice” this spring. Foster and Donahue met in 1983 while Donahue was a graduate student and Foster came to Harvard Forest. According to Donahue, he and Foster share many interests as an environmental historian and historical ecologist, respectively. 

“I learned most of my forest ecology from David,” said Donahue. “We discovered we also shared an interest in forest conservation and have worked together on that for the past couple decades, co-authoring the ‘Wildlands and Woodlands’ reports that advocate sweeping forest protection for New England.”

Lowenstein did “most of the writing” in the article because “mass timber” construction has been an area of interest in his work at NEEF, according to Donahue, but Donahue and Foster were invited to contribute to the article to provide unique context on “wildlands and woodlands” and to “broaden the impact.” While other authors contributed to the piece, Donahue said that The New York Times limits the byline to three credited authors.Donahue said that the three have received many emails thanking them for their article since it was published, including one from Central City Association of Los Angeles, which just published a report promoting building affordable housing with sustainably-harvested mass timber.

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