PORTLAND, Maine — Avesta Housing’s new, affordable, 40-apartment project going up on Brighton Avenue is the first building in Maine to feature stairwells and an elevator tower made from cross laminated timber. The high tech, eco-friendly structural material is cheaper and easier to install than the traditional concrete and steel it replaces.

However, the material had to be hauled all the way from the closest manufacturing plant, in Montana, at a cost of $40,000. If Maine had its own cross laminated timber factory, the nonprofit housing developer could cut most of the shipping costs and the savings would help Avesta create more affordable housing at a time when its waiting list is already over 3,000 names long.

“There is a limited amount of funding available to help finance the construction of affordable homes, so the more we are able to reduce costs on any one project — which have been skyrocketing because of Maine’s construction labor force shortage — the more funds will be available to build another,” said Greg Payne, Avesta’s development officer.

Avesta is a 45-year-old affordable housing development organization currently running 98 properties, 2,700 apartments and two assisted-living facilities in Maine and New Hampshire. It is headquartered in Portland.

The development on Brighton Avenue is called Wessex Woods and Payne said nearly 400 people have expressed interest in the 38 subsidized, and two market rate, apartments available. That’s in addition to a lengthy waiting list for the rest of their offerings.

“Right now, for our properties already built, there are a total of 3,287 households on our waiting lists,” Payne said.

PORTLAND, MAINE — 07/02/20 — Travis Harrington of Zachau Construction (right) and Louis Ouellette of Locbid Construction ready a huge slab of cross laminated timber at an Avesta Housing construction site in Portland on Thursday. There’s no manufacturing facility of the material in New England so it had to be shipped from Montana at a cosy of $40,000. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Besides Wessex Woods, Avesta has two other properties under construction for an additional 139 units. Neither project is using cross laminated timber though Payne said he expects future developments to use the product.

“The Wessex Woods project has shown us that using cross laminated timber can save money, and if we had been able to get the panels from a plant in Maine instead of one in Montana or Alabama, then we would have saved even more because we wouldn’t have incurred such high shipping costs,” Payne said.

Cross laminated timber resembles regular plywood but is much thicker and far stronger. It’s made by gluing perpendicular layers of wood together under tremendous pressure. The panels put in place at Wessex Woods last week were seven inches thick.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time it’s been used in Maine for an elevator shaft,” said Drew Wing, the chief operating officer Zachau Construction, the project’s general contractor.

Structural cross laminated timber panels have been used as walls, floors and support beams in Maine, previously.

The material is a massive time and money saver, Wing said. It took a handful of workmen with a crane just over an hour to install the last four elevator shaft panels at the job site on Thursday. The panels covered two floors of the elevator shaft.

It would have taken a similar crew of masons two weeks to construct the same thing out of concrete, Wing said. It would take even longer in the winter because they would need to build a heated tent around their work. Instead, Wing used the same subcontracted framing carpenters who did the rest of the building to do the job.

In saving construction time, cross laminated timber also saves money. According to Payne, the reduced labor costs associated with cross laminated timber saved Avesta around $75,000 even with the $40,000 spent on shipping from Montana. The total construction budget for Wessex Woods is around $6 million.

Maine has the workforce and timber resources to make cross laminated timber but it does not have a plant. Two recently-proposed facilities have yet to materialize due to funding and coronavirus-related supply chain snags.

In February 2018, cross laminated timber manufacturer SmartLam North America announced plans to build a factory somewhere in Maine. But by June 2019, the company abandoned those plans along with a state-funded $3 million grant. Smartlam, which is the same company that supplied Avesta’s cross laminated timber, did not specify a reason for the change of plans.

Last September, the Bangor Daily News reported that cross laminated timber manufacturer LignaTerra Global LLC planned to build a new 300,000-square-foot plant on a section of open land that used to be part of the Lincoln Paper and Tissue mill. At the time, it was thought the project would take a year to construct. But that timeline has been extended by at least a year, into 2021.

“The project is still underway, but it has been delayed since all the equipment is being manufactured in Europe where the COVID pandemic has caused severe supply chain disruptions and closure of the manufacturing facilities,” said Jay Hardy, Lincoln’s economic development director. “Given this timing — and Maine’s relatively short construction season — the project will be intensive in the next construction season.”

PORTLAND, MAINE — 07/02/20 — Gary Danforth of Locbid Construction helps pilot a huge piece of cross laminated timber into place at an Avesta Housing construction site in Portland on Thursday. The project marks the first time the material has been used for elevator shafts and stairwells in Maine instead of masonry and steel. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Despite the unforeseen delays, Hardy said he remains excited about the project.

“I’ve been telling people that a plant like this is not only an important part of the future of Maine’s forest products industry, but the future of the entire construction business as we pivot away from extraction based materials like steel and concrete and toward renewable sustainable materials like wood,” Hardy said.

Until Maine gets its own cross laminated timber manufacturing facility up and running, Avesta and other developers will have to pay shipping costs from Montana if they want to use it in construction.

“I’m hoping to see it made in Maine, someday,” said Ben Walter of CWS Architects, who designed the Wessex Woods development. “We could easily do this whole building with cross laminated timber if we could produce it locally. We could feed the entire northeast corridor. It could be a lot of jobs [and] a lot of distribution.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.