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Friday, September 28, 2012

The New Normal in Housing

This was a somewhat confusing week, if you're interested in whether the housing market is recovering, or not. On Tuesday, we heard that "we're at the start of a real housing recovery". On Wednesday, the AP reported that "New U.S. home sales edged down 0.3% in August". And yesterday we read "Pending sales of existing homes falls below mark considered healthy." On the same day, blogger David Dayen ran an informative piece on the housing statistics, although under the rather misleading headline "New Home Sales, Home Price Statistics Continue to Fuel Optimism on Housing." Misleading, because the gist of his article was that the optimism is based on results buoyed by three factors that are sending "false signals" with respect to true demand: a slight increase in the number of people employed since last year, the artificial suppression of supply of due to people not putting their homes on the market, and a speculative bubble in key markets by institutional investors that are taking advantage of low market prices and stockpiles of cash.

One of the best ways to cut through this fog is to catch the comments of respected expert housing analyst Dr. Robert Shiller of Yale University, who is the other half of the Case-Shiller Indices used to monitor housing industry health. Dr. Shiller is usually quite measured in his responses to the frequent questions on housing directed his way, because his experience in analyzing housing data gives him the wisdom of a much longer perspective on the data than most analysts who look at housing numbers. In the interesting interview below from last week, Dr. Shiller explains that it's too early to predict that we've reached the bottom in housing markets, and why he would wait until we see "at least a solid year of price increases" before the recovery will be real.



I also find CNBC market commentator Rick Santelli very helpful in helping us "regular folks" better understand what the heck all this economic turmoil means. In this white-board tutorial from yesterday, he hits the four main global economic drivers - stimulus, Europe, China, and housing - and their significance to any potential recovery. And he ends his discussion with the conclusion that we are now at the level of housing activity that represents a "new normal" in housing, and that any hope for a magic-bullet quick return to the days of 1.5 million housing starts is seriously misplaced.



This morning, there was a real plain-spoken, humorous confrontation between Santelli, and his CNBC counterpart Steve Liesman, who works real hard to find positive spin on almost all economic data. They reached an agreement that there may be a good market for futons in the coming years, which is good news for you light furniture manufacturers out there. The spirited exchange begins at the 5:00 minute mark, if you want to click forward in the video below.



But seriously, I want to re-emphasize that we in the wood industries need to focus on those things that will sustain our business model at current sales levels: gains in efficiency, productivity, and creativity in product development and service. The old days of two-month long order files are history, but profitability need not necessarily be.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

It's That Time of Year Again...

...at least, here in Central Pennsylvania. I woke up yesterday morning and it was a brisk 62 degrees in the house. Just the right temperature for the onset of The Fever.

For you hunters, that means Buck Fever. But I gave up the hunt years ago once I figured out that I was more likely to succumb to frostbite or a fall from a tree stand, than the deer was to my bullets. So I exchanged the passion of the hunt for the passion of the wood fire.

Yes, this is the time of year that every wood-burner gets the fever to start that first fire. The woodstove and flue have been professionally cleaned, the firewood has been split and stacked...

Ah, nuts. Yes, I had the stove cleaned, but I've been so busy on other projects that I forgot to take down the two or three trees that I had targeted for firewood this year. Too late now. I'm the perfect sucker, uh, customer for the firewood vendors, one of the minions who wait until the worse possible time (peak demand season) to find some firewood to buy. Since it's being bought so quickly right now, and I'm pretty cheap when it comes to buying wood, I'll have to settle for some green wood that was probably cut within the last month and split yesterday.

Which means I'll have to get creative with the stacking and drying. One year in similar circumstances, I stacked all the wood in the garage (The Wife loved that...) and kept a kerosene heater and box fans running in there, hoping to pre-dry the wood a little. It worked...it was pre-dried a little.

This year, I'm going to try something different. I'm going to build a Holzhausen. Here's a classic article from Mother Earth News that not only explains what a holzhausen (German for wood house!) is, but how to construct one. The basic idea is that you're constructing a chimney made of wood. Wind from any direction will be sucked into the round pile of firewood and hit a vertically-stacked center column that will direct the air upward. If you've done it right, and you're lucky with the weather, your wood will dry faster and more uniformly than if you've used the conventional rectangular woodpile arrangement.

And of course, there are videos on the web that show the whole process. This one is the best I've found. The narrator in this video doesn't use the vertical center stack or kindling splits to balance the stack as detailed in the Mother Earth article, but he does a pretty good job of showing the general idea, and even shows what can go wrong if you don't take care in your construction effort.




I'll build mine this weekend or next and give an update when it's all done. Until then, fellow wood-burners, enjoy the woodpile season.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Great Designs in Wood (31) - The Water Tower House of London

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/265798
Well, I'm not sure what I quite think about this one...but the comments on the bed and breakfast website from folks who have stayed in the house, make it sound great!

Go to the website here, and after viewing the photographs, click on the  "Street View" tab. Pretty neat.

Just goes to show, whatever people want to do, wood will make it better. Don't think the folks who stay here would be as crazy about it if the walls were the original concrete. Couldn't find a reference to what kind of wood is used, but it looks like a pine species from the photos.

From a story on the structure in the London Daily Mail...
Tom Dixon, the acclaimed designer known for his work with the Habitat chain, bought the tower and its surrounding land in 2005 and has been overseeing his vision for a futuristic home ever since.
First it was sectioned off into three storeys and clad with timber, then a dozen windows were cut into its walls.
...
The levels are connected by spiral stairs. Access from the outside is provided by a steel staircase but a lift is to be fitted in the next stage of the development, linking the ground to the first storey.
Inside, the tower has been fitted out to meet the highest eco-friendly standards and a 'heat exchange' system using water pumped from the Grand Union Canal, which runs by the foot of the tower, is planned.
Even after its external makeover, the tower - next to Sainsbury's in Ladbroke Grove - is not exactly a classical beauty. But for anyone inside looking out, it offers some of the best views in the capital."

... 

Large concrete supports were needed to protect it against the wind, and cutting into the sections of the water tank's concrete to fit the prefabricated timber cladding and interior structure was a delicate process.
 
So what kind of living experience will it provide? 'There is a certain sense of isolation with the supermarket and its car park below,' says Harris, 'but it's surprisingly quiet up there. 
'It's not for vertigo sufferers, though. In a narrow structure like this - the diameter of the house is 25ft - you really feel it.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/property/article-2093752/Townhouse-sky-Designer-Tom-Dixon-goes-world--creating-home-old-60ft-water-tower.html#ixzz271ZOMed7
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Hmm, only five minutes walk from Portobello Road. Maybe I'll stay there the next time I get to London. Lots of great old Victorian architecture around there. And I could use the exercise of climbing those stairs two or three times a day to work off the bangers and mash and toad-in-the-hole that I'll undoubtedly consume.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Global Warming...and an Alternative Course of Action

You've noticed it's getting a little hotter each year, and you're buying into the concept of global warming. Here's an excellent explanation of why what you're feeling is in fact a reality, at least with respect to the last few decades.  Dr. James Hansen of NASA demonstrates with the use of a statistical probability curve that in fact, the warming trend we've all noticed is, in fact, not a figment of our selective memory.




And here's a nice visualization of the data that Dr. Hansen is presenting above, that demonstrates the recent shift in the temperature curve really took off in the 1980's.



Now, Dr. Hansen is an interesting fellow. He's been at the forefront of the climate change debate for a long while, has been recognized for "clear communication of climate science in the public arena", and is one of the leading activists seeking to curtail the use of fossil fuels, and coal in particular. He's been criticized by folks on both sides of the climate debate, which I suspect means that he is too outspoken with facts that are inconvenient for both sides. Which means I tend to pay attention to what he is saying.

And so, assuming the data above to be valid statistical sample data from representative geographic regions, I would have to agree that we are in a global warming trend. But rather than focus on trying to reverse the warming trend through the "progressive" response of conservation and reduction of energy consumption (which, when you think about it, is actually a regressive than progressive response to the issue), I suggest taking a more pragmatic approach to the challenge.

If we view rising (or even just variable) global temperature as an opportunity instead of a threat, we start to think outside the box of regulatory constraint, and advance into the realm of economic opportunity. Let's take New Orleans as an example. When you stand on the levee of the west bank of the Mississippi, and you realize that the river is much higher than the subdivisions just on the other side of the levee, you tend to think, "Who came up with this idea?"

Now, we're witnessing (and paying for) the repetitive flooding of New Orleans, and we are beginning to assume this is going to happen ever more frequently in the coming years. So, why not move the city? After all, the Chinese have built new cities all over their country even before they need them. Why not move New Orleans inland by fifty or seventy-five miles, say, to the northwest corner of the convergence of I-55 and I-12, or a little farther north? Use public financing to get the whole project started with the most advanced in green building technology. Re-create Bourbon Street and the rest of downtown exactly, street for street, business for business, except with better engineering and materials...make sure everything is LEED-certified, and utilize as many state-of-the art energy sources (and wood products!) in the project as possible. Lots of oil, gas, solar and algae down there, so let's use it to power "Newer" Orleans. Make it a 21st-century demonstration city, one that will dazzle the populace and re-fire our imaginations of what can be done if we set our minds to it.

As a result, we'd have a boom-town here in the U.S. like nothing we've seen since a sleepy place called Orlando sprang to life due to the vision of another entrepreneurial developer named Disney. The construction, real estate, building materials, furniture, computer, and energy technology industries of the region would get long-term, real "stimulus"; modern city planners would get the opportunity to apply all the knowledge learned from the best cities in the world, and we'd have a Newer Orleans better than the original. And the whole thing could be done for a fraction of the cost of our current national budget deficit...and be repaid in surging tax revenues from the re-energized city.

When it comes to responses to the challenge of global warming, let's think bigger and better, not smaller and meaner. The first kind of thinking leads to economic expansion, the latter to economic contraction. Which would you prefer?


Monday, September 10, 2012

Only The Bees Know...

If you haven't heard that our honeybees have been having a hard time of it lately, you aren't paying attention to natural resource issues in the news. But if you've got kids, you might have seen The Bee Movie, starring Jerry Seinfeld...




...and not realized that there really is an issue underneath the humor of the movie. Here in North America it's been called Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world have been trying to figure out what's wiping out bee colonies all over the planet. So far, everything from global warming to bee mites and pesticides have been blamed, but one gets the sense we really haven't figured out what's going on.

This has pretty important implications for the planet, as everyone in the know (meaning everyone who's seen The Bee Movie) understands that without bees pollinating plants all over earth, we run out of plants pretty quickly, which is not a good thing. But scientists and their Extension counterparts are doing their best to research and educate the public, on the chance that someone will figure it out before its too late. In the mean time, bee keepers keep on keepin'...



And I, your intrepid wood/forest/bee investigator have braved the dangers of insect sting allergic reactions to bring you the front lines of bee activity...


I discovered a bee tree at the back of my property last weekend in a black cherry (Prunus serotina) tree, and fearlessly climbed to get a better shot. Wait for it, wait for it, you know what's coming...

Well, I'll keep an eye on the hive and see if it is active next spring. In the meantime, I'll research the topic a little and try to get a sense of how the issue might affect forest ecosystems in the coming years.

And if you're really interested and want to get into the effort, you might check out the Bee Keeping 101 class that Penn State is currently offering online.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Quick Notes for the Weekend

The Pennsylvania Biomass Energy Association is having their first annual conference on October 2nd and 3rd at the Harrisburg East Holiday Inn. Sounds like a great event from the line-up of speakers they've put together, and interesting tours will be given to those who want to see biomass energy close up. Click here to see all the details...

Received a nice note from Jessica Hickman of the famous Hickman Lumber family in western PA, and she brought her blog site to my attention. She's a natural writer, does a great job explaining lumber-related trivia, and her photography is stunning. Check it out here...

Also had an interesting exchange with Patrick Kennedy of Superior Woodcraft. Here's a shortened version of the exchange...
Patrick: ...I reblogged your information about clearcutting.  This type of information is helpful for our industry.  Many clients feel bad about buying wood cabinets because they are cutting down trees.  When I talk to them about the benefits many feel better after they learned about the benefits of sound forestry practices.
Chuck:  ... How's business?
Patrick: ...we are keeping pace.  Pricing power is still non-existent.  There is still too much capacity in the cabinet industry.  It doesn’t feel like we are sinking deeper into a hole, but it doesn’t feel like much relief either.
Chuck:  That's exactly how I would summarize the building and lumber sectors. Interesting. When you say "too much capacity" that doesn't bode well for the jobs outlook...
Patrick:  A lot of these cabinetmaking jobs are never coming back.  I talked to some larger companies in the ... area.  The personal toll it took on the companies was extremely high when they were forced to downsize.  They were turning their fellow church members, friends, neighbors and family out into the streets with no jobs at a time when there were no jobs to be had anywhere.  The leadership vowed never to be put into that position again because it was just too emotional.  Instead these companies are looking to engineers to find ways to increase productivity so that they don’t need to hire all of the folks back.  It is easier to turn off a machine when work slows then it is to fire members of your community. 
Then you add on all of the government issues with hiring employees and you have additional business reasons not to add to staff.
Chuck:  Yes...It's difficult for me to think of all the great folks I worked with in the 1980's and 90's who I know have been laid off and still are looking for work, or are in jobs that aren't nearly as good as what they had 10-20 years ago....I think that's what's really at the root of the economic "non-depression" we're in.
 Patrick: People are shocked when I tell them that about 70% of cabinetmakers across the country aren’t working and that the 30% that are working probably many of them aren’t work a full 40 hours...In just about every industry people tell me that they are working twice a much and getting half of the results compared to the past.  That is a major adjustment we are all making and you are right that is where the big problem lies.  Makes me want to head for the woods, get a basic income, have a garden, some animals and enjoy the family more.  I’ll have less anyway, but enjoy life more.
I'll let Patrick's closing comment end this post...
I do have expectations that things will turn better.  It is just a question as to when and how long will it take.  Have a great weekend.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Pennsylvania Clearcut Tour

Out on the road yesterday, stopped to eat my lunch on the side of the road, and decided to take a walk into an adjacent clearcut. As I rounded a turn just a couple of hundred feet from the road, I literally stumbled onto a pack (gaggle, herd, flock?) of turkeys who did their best to let me know I was not a welcome member of their club. So, I pulled out the smartphone, but of course, they got into the bush before I could figure out which button to push to get the video camera running.

Anyway, I kept the video running and shared some thoughts as I walked through the stand. I've always thought the most misunderstood concept of the environmental movement is that of clearcutting of a forest. I know it looks bad, and it intuitively feels like the wrong thing to do to cut down all the trees over a large area. But folks who own land and have had it clearcut, and foresters who spend a lot of time on the land, understand that the earth's response to a clearcut is with a smorgasbord of rich, new diversity of life forms. 

And scientifically, we know that the productivity of the forest, as measured by its growth and consumption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, is greatest per acre when the forest is in the first ten to twenty years after a large disturbance such as a clearcut. In fact, the flush of growth after a forest clearcut is much more dynamic and robust than other types of harvest that are usually considered better and more sustainable. That's because after a clearcut, the entire forest floor is subject to the abundant energy of the sun, and each form of life that taps into it converts that energy into biomass or other forms of energy.

Sometimes, the blessings of natural processes are even greater than our attempts to manage nature properly. And in this case, the blessing is that the most economically beneficial form of forest harvesting is also the one that provides the greatest return in forest biodiversity and carbon recycling over the long run. Clearcutting is not the right prescription for all forest sites and landowner objectives, but when it is, we should acknowledge its benefits and not look down on the practice as "the wrong thing to do", or something that is inherently unsustainable.




If you're interested in harvesting guidelines followed by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry on public lands, they have an excellent informational webpage at http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/sfrmp/silviculture.htm