PORTLAND, Ore. — To tour Bob and Julie Granger’s northeast Portland home is to see an Oregon forest milled and varnished, ready to eat off and walk across. Native bigleaf maple forms the floor, the trim is all Douglas fir from the foothills of the coast range, and the couple’s kitchen counters came from two walnut trees that used to stand in their front yard.
The Grangers were able to fashion their two-story home thus because of a growing Portland movement that’s trying to do the same thing for home building that farmers’ markets have done for how we eat.
“We have a real opportunity here to not only connect people with wood, but connect them with the forest ecosystems that provide that wood,” said Brent Davies, director of forestry for the Portland organization Ecotrust.
When you buy or build a home, the geographic source of the wood that back its walls or frame its windows is usually a mystery, lost in a long supply chain of builders, home supply stores, lumber yards, mills and forest owners.
But just as people in Portland and elsewhere now take a greater interest in where their food comes from, some consumers like the Grangers are curious to know the provenance of the wood they live surrounded by everyday.
When they started building their house last year, the Grangers knew they wanted it to be energy- efficient, but they also wanted to see if they could cut back on the energy expended to haul building materials to their bare lot in the Cully neighborhood.
“It’s nice to know where your wood comes from, that it’s not just from China,” said Julie Granger, a program manager at Volunteers of America.
After some searching, they found Stephen Aiguier, the owner of Green Hammer, a local build and design firm. Four years ago, Aiguier and local timber land owner Peter Hayes launched a group called the Build Local Alliance to connect architects, homebuilders, contractors, lumber yards and forest owners in a local-only supply chain.
That group, which now has about 150 members, is making it easier for people like the Grangers — who want quality wood from a sustainable source — to buy from local forest owners who are seeking a sustainable alternative to industrial tree farming and whose land is often threatened by development and sprawl.
“In the same way the local food movement is driven by quality, a lot of this is driven by builders and customers just wanting quality material,” said Hayes, who is also a member of the Oregon Board of Forestry. “It’s not necessarily about saving the earth or a certain type of forestry. It’s about a quality product.”
But for Hayes, whose family manages three forests in the Coast Range west of Portland, it’s very much about a certain type of forestry, one that emphasizes ecological values like water quality and wildlife habitat while still finding ways to make a profit.
So instead of just planting and harvesting a monoculture of Douglas fir — Oregon’s money-making tree — Hayes’ forests have a diversity of species. And builders like Aiguier are one way to connect that style of forestry with customers who value the marbled knotting of the wood he can mill from the remaining maple on his land, a tree species commonly cleared from industrial forests.
“It ended up superb,” said Bob Granger, giving a tour of his maple floors recently to Hayes as the forester snapped pictures of the finished products, knots and all.
This intimate link between home buyer and tree grower is rare. And Hayes and others know it’s not practical to expand to a larger scale.
So the alliance is finding ways to make it easier for builders working for customers like the Grangers to find local wood without going direct to source or having to special order lumber from local mills.
“The whole point was to basically allow for wholesale distribution to happen for small foresters,” said Aiguier
Last year, Sustainable NW, a member of the alliance, opened a lumber yard in Vancouver, Wash., where lumber companies can come load up on trim or flooring or two-by-fours, just like they might at a Home Depot. Except all the wood at the yard is from northern California, Oregon or Washington.
The yard’s customers are primarily companies like Parr Lumber that either specially market the local wood from Sustainable NW Wood’s or simply like to have it on hand should someone come in asking specifically for a locally-sourced product.
“While there was a fairly robust land base and milling infrastructure and demand for the product, all to often the market connection was not being made. The reason was there often was not a standing supply of local inventory,” said Ryan Temple, president of the groups for-profit arm, Sustainable NW Wood.
The lumber yard tries to fill that missing link, and it seems to be working, Temple said.
“It’s surprising the growth we’ve had given economic conditions,” Temple said. Next month, the lumber yard will move to a permanent location in east Portland.
Price does count. Sustainable wood products like those locally-grown or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council typically cost 5 percent to 25 percent more than standard lumber, Temple said. But those costs should come down as the supply chain becomes more efficient, he said.
And it’s a small premium to pay to know you’re supporting responsible forestry and local business, argues Aiguier. He hopes the alliance can expand its reach enough so that soon buying a locally grown two-by-four will be as common as searching out locally grown tomatoes.
“We’ve been pretty successful on a micro scale of getting local wood headed through local hands to local projects,” he said. “But I think we’re at the point where we need to up the ante a little bit to move beyond the low hanging fruit and start talking to larger builders and home supply stores.”