Some Oregon architects are apolitical, believing that discretion is the better part of valor. Why risk expressing an opinion when circumspection is the safer course? There are times though when even the most politically disinterested among us are spurred to action. Such may be the case with Oregon House Bill 3429, currently under consideration by the State Legislative Assembly.
HB 3429 would prohibit the use of state funds for public buildings not conforming to rules that preference the use of wood as the construction material. Specifically, the bill says that the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) shall adopt rules regarding the construction of buildings by public bodies that are financed in whole or part through state funding. The rules shall include, but need not be limited to, provisions designed to ensure that the building materials used are, to the maximum extent practicable, made of wood.
The motivation for this proposed legislation is reasonable: a perfect storm of circumstances has led to a precipitous decline in timber harvests.(1) The calamitous results have included the shuttering of mills across Oregon and the impoverishment of rural communities. For a state whose history is inextricably tied with forestry and wood products, the collapse of the industry has proven to be an existential crisis. How large a role in Oregon’s future economy should lumber play?
Generations of architects in Oregon have famously exploited the practical and expressive qualities of wood. Wood is a strong, lightweight and flexible building material. It is organic, sustainable, natural, recyclable, and renewable. Wood is also visually appealing, warm, and inviting. The material cultivated a regionally appropriate aesthetic that is immediately associated with the Pacific Northwest.
So what’s the problem with HB 3429? Simply stated, design professionals should determine the best building material for intended applications, not politicians. All construction materials have their benefits and uses, and wood is no exception; however, legislating a preference for wood isn’t necessarily in Oregon’s best interest.
Bureaucrats should likewise not assume the role of design arbiter. If passed into law, the bill’s provisions would entrust the DAS with enforcement of requirements for wood construction in state-funded buildings. If the department determines that the construction of a building subject to the rules fails to comply, it could demand the return of any unexpended state money for the building and may disqualify the responsible agency from receiving future disbursements of state funding for building construction.
Notwithstanding the costs to apply the rules and defend decisions (where exactly would that money come from?), the proposed legislation would burden projects with an overarching criterion that relegates other fundamental design and construction properties (such as maintenance, construction efficiency, LEED contributions, etc.) to lesser consideration.
What will be threshold of acceptability be? Would it be a calculation by weight or volume of the portions of a building that are comprised of wood products? Their relative dollar value? Countless variables influence the design of every project.(2) How would the DAS account for these in a timely, fair, and well-considered review?
The rules would inevitably necessitate exhaustive analyses of construction materials alternatives. They would be required to justify why products other than wood are specified for use in a project. For example, if concrete tilt-up or formed walls, masonry, glass, or steel design is proposed, there would need to be an objective analysis that determines why these products, rather than wood, must be utilized. I’m not sure what this analysis would look like, which is part of the problem.
There would also need to be a state funded mechanism to ensure that the law is followed. The bottom line? HB 3429 could be wildly impractical and expensive to implement. If there are proposals detailing how the legislation would be administered, enforced, and funded, I haven’t seen them.
Support for HB 3429 comes from the Oregon Forest Industries Council, Stimson Lumber, and other forest products companies. They’re working hard to advance this concept into law. The bulk of the opposition to the bill is coming from advocates for sand & gravel and concrete companies. They see a direct threat to their industry, a zero-sum game where there will be winners and losers. The forest industry’s gain if HB 3429 passes into law would be their loss.
Oregon architects have yet to signal an opinion about HB 3429, though AIA Oregon lobbyist Cindy Robert’s initial response to a query from AIA-SWO president Paul Dustrud is that our State component will adopt a position opposing the bill.
FYI, a public hearing and possible work session regarding HB 3429 will occur this Wednesday, April 6, 3:00 PM, in Room HR C at the State Capitol in Salem. If you feel strongly enough, contact your state representative and express your views regarding this proposed legislation.
(1) These well-documented circumstances include federal tightening of restrictions for logging on public lands, international competition, the export of unmilled logs, and the collapsed housing market and consequential drop in timber prices. Additionally, the US Green Building Council only recognizes wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as eligible for LEED credit, disqualifying most Oregon-grown lumber.
(2) Variables include the building’s intended occupancy, type of construction, location of its property, sustainable design considerations, life cycle costs, acoustical performance, fire and life safety, and insurance requirements.