One of Maine’s most environmentally advanced school buildings showcases a most traditional Maine building material.

Good old white pine paneling covers the walls and ceilings of the Friends School of Portland in Cumberland. The expanses of blonde planking, custom milled from trees on the site, was “a huge selling point” to school directors, according to builder Peter Warren of Freeport.

“They love it … Wood in the school came right off the lot,” said Warren, who worked with Kaplan Thompson Architects on the school’s ultra-energy efficient Passive House design.

That kind of excitement has been rare in the wood products industry of late. If you’ve followed the news, you know that five paper mills have closed in the past three years. The workforce has shrunk by half in the past 15 years. Much of the strategizing over the future of the woods industries has rightly focused on developing export markets. A companion effort seeks a renewal spark by strengthening home-grown networks, similar to the local food movement.

Local wood consciousness may lag local food awareness. But between the construction and heating industries, and emerging products, the upside for local wood may be far greater than local agriculture. Especially through stronger branding and value-added products.

Building the brand begins at home.

An upcoming tour provides opportunities for architects, engineers and builders to consider new ways of incorporating local materials into their projects. The Local Wood WORKS Initiative organized the two-day “Designing for Maine” tour, which features producers of cedar shingles, hardwood flooring, and a variety of pine products. The tour also features some of the state’s best-managed woodlands.

“We think the building community is a key to raising awareness,” said Theresa Kerchner, executive director of Kennebec Land Trust. The land trust is one of eight organizations that launched the initiative as a strategy for supporting rural jobs and conserving Maine’s woodlands for their recreational, economic, wildlife habitat, water quality and scenic values.

In a state that’s 89 percent forested, it’s natural to assume that all wood is local wood. But that’s not how Maine’s economy is working today. Just as Maine exports a lot of raw wood, it imports a lot of wood products. There’s plywood from the tropics, cedar clapboards from the west and pressure-treated framing lumber from the south. Many of these products have no Maine substitutes. But Maine produces a variety of premier products that deserve wider appreciation.

To be sure, most builders will tell you that finding local suppliers takes a bit more effort than driving to the nearest big box store. And in some cases, it may cost a little more.

Interest in building with local wood is “really high” among architects, says Portland architect Scott Simons, who incorporated laminated wood timbers in the recently completed Patrons Oxford Insurance building in Portland. Simons says he appreciates wood’s multiple appeals: its availability, its juice to local economies, its carbon storage qualities and its beauty.

“It makes sense,” Simons said.

Simons is especially interested in the next generation of products and ongoing efforts to site manufacturing capacities in Maine for mass-timber panels and wood-fiber foam insulation.

Why should average Mainers pay attention and buy more local wood?

It will make a big difference in parts of the state hardest hit by economic dislocation and demographic changes.

It helps bridge the divide between the two Maines. A suburban homeowner building a deck, a logger trying to make payments on expensive equipment and a family trying to practice good forestry all have a stake in a common cause.

It will reconnect Mainers with our heritage as “the pine tree state” and invest us psychologically in growing, sustainably harvesting and producing the next generation of wood products, which still need broader political support and financial backing to succeed in the marketplace.

It all comes back to how we spend our dollars. It’s easy to catch the local-wood spirit from a devout practitioner, such as Henry Banks of Denmark. Banks is a fine home builder who delights in Maine’s wood bounty and in matching wood to the task at hand. He once managed to use 18 different species of Maine wood in a covered footbridge in Bridgton.

If builders wonder whether their customers can even tell the difference, Banks has a message. When local wood is installed in a visible place in the house, not only do homeowners notice, they tell their friends.

“They go crazy. They brag about it,” said Banks.

Lee Burnett is project director for Forest Works! a regional conservation partnership focused on sustainable forest management in Southern Maine.

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