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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (38) - 2013 US Wood Design Awards

Bruce Canedy of Kilwa Biomass made me aware of the recent announcement of the winners of the 2013 US  Wood Design Awards, and what an interesting and beautiful lot they are. I thought about featuring one of the designs in this posting, but found it difficult to decide which was my favorite. Literally all of them have at least one interesting feature that caught my fancy.

So I leave it up to you, the Go Wood reader, to pick the favorite. Visit the Wood Works site at this link, click on the photos of each of the winners, and watch the ensuing slide shows. When you've seen them all, click back to Go Wood and register your favorite in the poll on the right-hand side of this page. We'll see how the woody public's taste is running these days. And if you care to share with us why you made your selection as you did, please do so in the comments section of this post.

By the way, you may want to bookmark the Wood Works site. It's well-organized and chock full of useful tools for increasing one's level of knowledge of wood in construction. Thanks go out to our industry friends who are sponsoring the Wood Works effort...keep up the great (wood)work(s)!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Better Days Ahead

Earlier this week I received the following email...
"I'm a tree farmer in Southern Indiana and Central Kentucky. I think that one of the biggest problems that the NRDC and other environmental groups have in understanding forests is that they think of timber as being a natural resource instead of a agricultural crop. The only real difference between raising a crop of timber and a crop of corn is the length of time to maturity. By classifying timber as a natural resource instead of a crop, they set it up for being idolized instead of being used. 
Markets for hardwood timber stumpage in my area are so bad, and have been for a long time, that I am starting to think that long-term timber management is not economically possible and is purely pie-in-the-sky. Stumpage prices for timber in Indiana and Kentucky are the same as they were 30 years ago, and inflation has increased more than 100%. 
I'm in the process of seriously considering liquidating my holdings and putting my investment elsewhere. Even if wood demand tripled over night, I'm not sure if I would begin to get back what I've lost to inflation. What is your opinion as to what is going on in the marketplace, and is my assessment of timber economics correct? 
Thanks..."
I pondered it for a couple of days, and when I got back in my office this morning I sent him the following reply...
"Hey, ..., thanks for sharing. I think you're right on, both with respect to what the environmentalists are missing and to timber markets.
If it is true that you couldn't make back your forest investment even if lumber prices tripled, then I can understand how liquidation would be tempting.  Before you do, though, a couple of thoughts...
There is no doubt that the Chinese economy has begun to improve our timber markets dramatically, and will continue to do so over the next decade. I have data that suggests that thus far, Chinese involvement in our markets has had the same relative impact [on lumber prices]as one million additional housing starts here in the U.S. True, the impact has been most dramatic on structural lumber, but we know that hardwood follows those price trends eventually. Our local hardwood sawmills (the ones that are still running) had good to excellent years last year and markets just seem to keep improving, slowly but surely. I think the pendulum is swinging back from a "biomass" outlook of forestry investment (one that would never pay, for the landowner) to a "sawlog" economy, as the Chinese pipeline becomes more and more established. So, things are looking brighter for our timber landowners, and companies marketing logs and lumber. Not so, unfortunately, for our secondary wood industries, which now have to compete against the giant purchasing (and manufacturing) force called "China" which seems to be able to buy anything it wants.
Second thought is, what other investments are out there that are so sure a thing that you can justify getting out of good timberland? Even James Grant, widely respected publisher of James Grant's Interest Rate Observer, startled the investment world last year when he suggested that a black walnut plantation would out-perform US Treasuries over the next thirty years. Most observers thought he was kidding, but in a shaky world, at least you know your trees are always adding capital. Which is better than what you can say about practically all other currency-based investments.
So if you can, hang on to your timberland. Better days are ahead."
And, I would add for you industry readers of Go Wood, my time on the road at mills and conferences in the last couple of months suggests that things are, in fact, beginning to look up. Our American economy seems to be as much about attitude as anything, and we're beginning to come to grips with certain new realities. And as we do, we will do what previous generations of Americans have always done...deal with it, and get on with business.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Serious Wood Collectors - The IWCS

This weekend I had the opportunity to meet a new bunch of Woodites...and these folks take it seriously. They call themselves The International Wood Collectors Society, and they were holding their Annual Convention outside of  Eustis, Florida in a beautiful setting at Lake Yale.

Wood collecting is a casual, laid-back hobby.
There, nestled next to the lake, among the moss-covered live oaks and pines, were dozens of folks browsing through piles of wood samples of various shapes and sizes. All the samples had been brought to the conference by members as donations to the highlight of the meeting, the wood auction on the last day.  The auction items were labeled by species and represented species from all over the world. The most numerous, though, were the various rare species that grow in the diverse and unusual ecosystems of Florida and the other southeastern states.

Duane Keck, who describes himself as a "Tropical and Temperate Zone Wood Collector" on his business card, told me they  hold their annual meeting at Lake Yale every year because of the unique collecting opportunities the area provides for collectors who come from all over North America. I met collectors from Indiana, Oregon, and New York at the meeting, and I'm sure their were dozens of other states and probably some provinces of Canada represented.

Never before have I met so many true "wood experts" in one place. These folks know their stuff, and when a species identification is questioned, the discussion gets lively. Within minutes of arriving, I was pulled into a debate on whether a certain block of wood was holly or not. The piece in question was that long upright piece at the right of the adjacent picture. This put me in an interesting predicament...I've never worked with a piece of holly before, and if I ever cut one down in the woods I don't recall it. Nor have I ever studied the physical and anatomical properties of holly. In fact, I never knew anyone who had. We just don't run too much holly through Texas or Pennsylvania sawmills. But I had to uphold the honor of Pennsylvania and its fine state university.

Several of the debaters questioned its authenticity on the look of the bark. And they expected me to weigh in. So I just gave them my best concerned scientist nod and a non-committal "It could be holly, but it does look a little fishy." After which I was summarily dismissed as a neophyte, and the debate continued without me.

The real action begins.
It was soon time for the main event, the wood auction. If you're a wood turner or other fine wood craftsman, you would have wanted to have been there. I saw some pretty nice exotic specimens go from anywhere from $2 to $20 dollars. I had to leave before the best stuff went up, but am willing to bet that everyone who bought anything at the auction left happy with their haul. I sat there thinking I knew a few Philly-area woodworkers who could inflate those prices in a hurry.

I only got to spend a couple of hours at the 4-day event, but left wishing I could have spent a lot more time out there. It looked like a great way to unwind and talk about the deeper meaning of wood with a bunch of fine folks. But my traveling buddy was a little itchy to move on...apparently, a wood auction is not quite as exciting as killing zombies in the latest version of "Black Ops 3". So I left, but am resolved to join the IWCS and attend next year's show.

More interested in Zombies than Zebrawood.

If you're looking to increase your knowledge of wood and perhaps even beginning your own wood collection, I would encourage you to check out the International Wood Collectors Society. After all, wood is more durable than stamps, and cheaper than gold coins.

Wood collection...it's not just for firewood, anymore.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Global Reset, 2013

Do you know who this person is?
A few folks have inquired how they could view a recording of my presentation to the Western Pallet Association last month. The answer is, as of yesterday, you can visit the Association's website by clicking here, scrolling down to my picture, and clicking on either the PDF or Powerpoint version of the presentation to download to your computer. The PDF is a quicker download, but the Powerpoint file has a recorded voice-over by which you can hear me explain the slides, which is probably better if you have the time, because there are some crazy and complicated slides. It takes a few minutes to download, and the entire presentation takes an hour to run, but if you're interested in global markets and how all this debt and politics is affecting them, you may find it interesting. New Go Wood reader Dave Powell watched it and called it "another great presentation".

Thanks, Dave...the check's in the mail.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Great Designs in Wood (37) - Villa Miodula

If you're looking for a real escape, you might want to consider the Tatra Mountains, which form the border of Poland and Slovakia. I've made one trip to Poland, and found the back-country Poles warm, fun, and hospitable.

But the part of Poland I visited was far from Villa Miodula...in fact, most places are. Any lover of wood will marvel at this boutique hotel. It was built by Marta and Andrew Klimek because they disliked the larger commercial hotels of the region, and they wanted a place where they could "wake up and fall asleep in a cozy mountain-style interior, eat dinner by the fireplace, enjoy the sun on the terrace, and take a bath in a fragrant wood bathroom with a view of the mountains."

Well, what a vision it was, and what a dream destination it is. Located near the village of Koscielisko, 86 kilometers south of Krakow, it looks like a castle right out of a fairy tale. Built into the ground on a rock foundation, every part of this hotel oozes the warmth of wood, even in the dead of winter. The owners describe Villa Miodula as "a large tavern built with spruce logs in a perfectly highlander style."

As you can see, the wooden wonderland was continued into the interior detail. And perhaps most importantly for a chalet riding the crest of the Carpathians, the wood detail is carefully implemented to convey a sense of light, even in the bedrooms and baths.

The woodwork is all maintained in natural and whitewashed colors, and combined with large windows and skylights, the sense is one of lightness even though nearly all trimmings and detail are in wood.


You might think that the structure would be cold and chilly, but once again wood is utilized to chase off winter chill, in the form of a water-jacketed three stage high-efficiency wood stoves, controlled by computer in each room to maintain perfect temperatures. 
Since I'm not a skier, I will probably try to visit Villa Miodula in the summer, when I can appreciate hiking the local mountain trails and talking with locals along the side of the road. Just about every Pole has one or more relatives living in New York, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh or Chicago, so many of them speak at least broken English, which seems to get better when you've all had a few drinks.

Speaking of which, Miodula apparently translates from the Polish into "honey hive", and the owners have taken inspiration from the name to produce their own proprietary blend of "miodowka", or honey vodka. Apparently they greet you with a warm cup of it upon your arrival. Sounds like my kind of place.
I could spend days just studying the architecture of the place, and I hope to get the chance some day to do just that. If any of you makes it there before me, please send me notes and photos of your experience and we'll highlight it again here on Go Wood.



Contemplation in wood.

The website for Villa Miodula can be found here. And more details on the hotel are provided at Weranda.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Heating Decision Made Easy (Final Epilogue)

Al Steele at the US Forest Service made me aware of a development related to my previous heating project posts that seems to be important enough to pass along, with my usual unsolicited comments on the story. 

From ClimateWire comes this interesting story:
Lawsuit could force costly delay in new gas furnace standards
The wait for more fuel-efficient gas furnaces just got longer. The Department of Energy has moved to withdraw a new rule that would require consumers in 30 northern states to buy 90-percent-efficient furnaces starting May 1.
 The rule would have saved 81 million to 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide between 2013 and 2045, according to DOE estimates, as consumers upgraded their furnaces from 80 percent efficiency to 90 percent efficiency systems.
In a joint settlement of a case brought against it by the American Public Gas Association, DOE last week asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to vacate the new rule. The settlement needs to be approved by the court for the rule to be vacated.
The first sentence of the article is extremely interesting. Who was waiting? Not consumers. Anyone who wants a 90% + efficiency gas boiler can buy one today. Actually, the only folks waiting are those interested in forcing the rest of the country's gas boiler owners to upgrade their boilers to the more expensive higher-efficiency systems. So that first sentence gives us a tip on how the rest of the article will be flavored.
[The American Public Gas Association] also said the new rule would hurt efficiency. The rule would require installing condensing furnaces with additional vents, Schryver said, and the higher cost of venting would drive consumers to lower-efficiency electric furnaces.
Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), said there's no danger of that happening. "I think it's ludicrous. According to EIA, heating with an electric furnace is three times [the price] as compared to gas, and with gas prices declining it's probably four times," he said. "Electric furnaces -- there's no place in the market. They have 5 percent of market share today because they are a really lousy choice in terms of operating costs."
Well, it might be ludicrous to Mr. DeLaski that some folks would choose to heat with expensive electricity instead of upgrading their boilers, but consider...consumers would also have the option of purchasing one or more $100 - $300 electric space heaters, instead of a $10,000 condensing gas boiler. Ludicrous to choose electric...or just the only affordable option left to homeowners of modest means?

DOE had that all figured out...sort of...well, not exactly.
Potential $10.7B in heating savings put on ice
However, DOE concedes that some consumers would find it expensive to upgrade their gas furnaces to the new standard. For these cases, it had proposed a waiver of the 90 percent efficiency rule.
"The rule does mention a potential waiver process, but no waiver process was ever agreed to. We found that the proposed waiver would be unworkable," Schryver said. "If you're living in a cold northern state and the furnace goes out in January, you don't want to have to wait two or three days to get a waiver to have an 80 percent furnace as opposed to a 90 percent furnace."
Schryver said that contractors were not trained to assess waivers, and it was not certain that they have 80 percent furnaces available to install in households that received waivers.
But sticking with the old standard could be the costlier option for regular households. DOE estimates that the 90 percent standard over 30 years would save consumers $10.7 billion taking into account utility bills, equipment costs and gas prices. "Consumer protection organizations like efficiency standards because they save money for consumers," Kennedy said.
This potential heating savings...how did they figure that? I demonstrated in the previous posts that the higher efficiency definitely did not cover, in gas consumption costs, the additional cost of the high-efficiency furnace...especially if you consider the shorter expected life of the condensing boiler. So the only way they come up with billions and billions of savings is if they forecast much, much higher natural gas prices in the future.

Maybe they know something the rest of us don't. After all, the DOE can definitely impact gas price trends, at least in the upward direction.

I love that last line about consumer protection organizations saving money for consumers. Seems to me that the biggest savings to consumers would for the consumer protectors to let consumers protect themselves through their purchasing decisions.

But if you think its all been settled for the better, then take heed of the closing of the article...
If the court accepts the settlement and the gas furnace efficiency standard rule is vacated, DOE will have to go back to the drawing board to come up with a new rule. Kennedy said this sets the stage for even stricter norms. "The law requires that the standard be set at the highest level that is economically feasible," she said. "We will be pushing for the highest possible standard, and that could be higher than the 90 percent level." [Emphasis added.]
So our consumer protectors will be back, with a vengeance.
DeLaski is less optimistic. He said DOE will now take another year to issue a proposed standard and an additional two years to come up with a new final standard. 
"It actually means we'll have to wait another seven years. There's a five-year lag time from when the DOE publishes a standard and when it goes into effect," deLaski said. The new standard will apply only to the installation of new products. "That means that 80 percent units will be installed to run for the next 20 to 40 years," he added.
He's right, at least in my case. I'll be running an 83% efficient boiler in my home for the next twenty years, at least. Unless, of course, the market provides me with a better, more cost-efficient heating alternative before then.

And that's as it should be.