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Thursday, April 24, 2014 12:01 am

The birth of the plyscraper


Illinois corn growers have been getting fat because so many Americans drive to their convenience stores for sweet drinks in cars using ethanol-laced gasoline, both made cheap by trade barriers that keep out cheaper sugars and fuel ethanol. That kind of agriculture is not sustainable in ecological or economic terms, and one day the state will find itself with a countryside that is not only devoid of people but devoid of its iconic crops.

If corn acreage shrinks, what might take its place? For a while in the 1970s there was talk of using farmland to produce energy – again. The central Illinois countryside once supplied all the region’s energy through the early industrial age. In addition to home fires and smokehouses, wood fueled transportation; in the Illinois River bottomland, immense cathedrals of cellulose were felled by the thousands to be burned in steamboat boilers that consumed 30 to 40 cords of wood per day.

In the 1970s, visionaries talked excitedly about growing plants to supply cellulosic biomass that could be cheaply converted into fuel alcohol by our friends the bacteria. They are still talking about it. Then there is biomass that can be burned in boilers and home furnaces. Compared to logs used in wood stoves, wood pellets burn cleaner (like natural gas compared to coal) and are more efficient to boot, but I doubt that even Elon Musk could find a way to move pellets down copper wire or pipes into American homes, which is what would be needed to displace electricity or natural gas used for heating.

A new possibility is emerging – growing buildings. It’s been done too. In the frontier era, trees supplied the logs from which houses and outbuildings were made. Later, the glorious mature hardwoods that populated the groves on the open prairie were felled and milled into lumber. One of my ancestors in Cass Country built a house that was sided with walnut shingles. The handsome Woodford County courthouse in Metamora was built in 1844 from timber (much of it black walnut) felled nearby. Construction of the finer houses of the day in Champaign and Urbana is thought to have consumed about 12,000 acres of oak, walnut, hickory, linden, elm, ash and sycamore in the nearby Big Grove.

Building wooden houses of a very different kind is on the minds of the clever people who work for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. That’s the Chicago architecture firm that builds really tall buildings such as the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai out of concrete and steel and some, like Chicago’s Trump Tower, out of hot air. (SOM also designed the building that now houses PNC Bank on the north side of Springfield’s square.) SOM has tested the feasibility of building a  residential tower in Chicago consisting of the usual reinforced concrete core and floors but with those floors supported by wood columns connected by wall panels also made of wood rather than the usual aluminum and wallboard. The contraption would be about as tall as the Public Service Building (now the Illinois Building) built by the Central Illinois Public Service Co. at Sixth and Adams.

The timber panels and columns used in such a “plyscraper” are manufactured from multiple thin layers of wood glued together using the same principle that produces plywood sheets. While wooden, there is little of the tree about these structural members. They are stronger than reinforced concrete, fire-resistant and easy to assemble (sort of like AFSCME’s membership). The SOM firm has concluded that building its tower out of wood would be not only technically feasible but competitive in costs with traditional building methods. Because trees take up and store carbon dioxide as they grow, and because the wood bits of razed buildings can be recycled or burned for energy, such materials could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by up to 75 percent.

Unfortunately, no American manufacturer produces the cross-laminated timber  panels of the sort that SOM would need for its project. That’s an impediment to their wider use, not because of cost or availability but because government building projects usually are required to use materials manufactured in the US of A. Central Illinois would be perfect spot for such a plant, being near major building markets and served by an excellent transport system.

Even if central Illinois had the plant, it doesn’t have the trees – yet. But this is one case in which there actually is an answer to the familiar riddle, which I will rephrase as, Which came first, the farmer or the factory? No one grew soybeans around here either until Augustus Eugene Staley opened a processing plant in Decatur in 1922. True, growing trees on an industrial scale would require subsidy until the trees, and the market for them, matures, but subsidizing the rural economy comes as naturally to lawmakers as farting to a cow. Farmers are now growing teeth-rotting sweeteners only because we – meaning us taxpayers – pay them to do it. How much better to pay them to grow something useful? Growing trees would turn the Illinois countryside green in every way.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com

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