Amazingly, the local and sustainably harvested beech and birch that completes the interior of the Ross Commons dining hall was a blue print away from never leaving the forest. "In the beginning," Director of Environmental Affairs, Nan Jenks-Jay remembers, "the architects wanted cherry. A nice interior wood--sure, but you won't find so much as a board foot of it in Vermont." But through the insistence of collage officials like Jenks-Jay and Director of Facilities Planning Dave Ginevan, the project architect Tai Soo Kim soon began to embrace locally harvested wood. With the experiences of Bicentennial Hall to guide them, the Office of Facilities Planning worked with the architects and a local forestry group, Vermont Family Forests, to design a building that incorporated Vermont forest resources.
The level of planning that followed was intense. From the building design to the management of the forest, to the installation of the finished products--each step relied on the one before it. What began as a flickering idea quickly evolved into a multi-year effort that spanned the state.
The links below offer an explanation of these steps and serve to chronicle the journey of the Ross wood from the forest to its installation.
1. Forest Management
When the decision was made to use sustainably harvested wood in the new LaForce dining hall, the College didn't have to look far for a forest to supply it. The College's Bread Loaf lands, located only 20 minutes from campus, contained the yellow birch and beech the project required. By the project's end 30,000 board feet were removed from the property, the equivalent of seven log trucks.
Throughout the logging, David Brynn of Vermont Family Forests served as the primary forester managing the Bread Loaf lot to insure the forest's long-term health, both as a resource and an ecosystem.
Following the removal of the timber, College forester Steve Weber performed a variety of management techniques ranging from relocating tops and stumps, to run-off control, to agitating the soil to disturb fern growth and encourage seedling trees.
Similar management practices were employed prior to and after logging on the other local wood lots involved in the project.
2. Logging with Bill Torrey
Bill Torrey, a logger from Jericho Vermont with 25 years of experience undertook the logging of Bread Loaf. During the summer of 2001, he worked from late July to the end of August to harvest 30,000 board feet. Torrey, who once was a paper mill logger in Maine, had worked with Vermont Family Forest before. For this particular project his assignment was to move through the forest cutting the marked beech and yellow birch as quickly as possible. Vermont Family Forests and College Forester Steve Weber would attend to the rehabilitation in the fall. Because Bread Loaf already has a substantial network of existing ski trails and logging roads, Torrey elected to use a skidder to drag the logs from the woods.
3. Logging with John Anderson
Middlebury graduate John Anderson '94, occupies a highly specialized niche in the world of logging: he uses workhorses to skid logs from the forest floor to developed logging roads. The seemingly backwards technique represents the finest in sustainable logging. With his workhorses, Anderson can extract timber from deep within a woodlot without bulldozing new roads. An Art History major while at Middlebury, Anderson is one of the only "traditional" loggers in Vermont. John uses a modern chain saw and may use a skidder on existing roads, but skidding with the workhorses is his specialty. The workhorses substantially reduce the impact and general wear and tear that result from dragging logs across the forest floor. Working closely with his horses, Andersen can direct a log down a slope so as to avoid crushing saplings that may one day grow into valuable timber. His technique represents the opposite of a clear cut.
When I caught up with John during the fall of 2001, it was a beautiful October afternoon. Vermont Family Forests had turned to him to log some yellow birch from a private wood lot in Starksboro. The timber would augment that taken from the Bread Loaf wood lot. John and his crew worked with fluid efficiency that afternoon, moving between horses and saw to bring the yellow birch down to the landing. Like logging everywhere, the work was grueling and dangerous, but it wasn't ugly. In fact, it was anything but ugly-- it was beautiful. Over the next half a year, I would watch as the logs that toppled to the forest floor that autumn afternoon were brought back to life. I would see them transformed and reinvented as rough boards, door frames, ceiling panels and decorative wall paneling. I like to think that October day set the standard for the whole journey, from the milling to the last panel in La Force, was beautiful and exciting.
4. Growney's Sawmill
As part of the LaForce job, VFF asked Growney to go through the SmartWood certification process. This entailed moving his mill to a covered location to keep the wood dry and fresh, as well as some paper work and lots of record keeping. "It is almost to the point where every log is numbered," Growney said. "There is a lot of honesty in the certification. I am obligated to do everything I can to get the most usable timber out of low grade logs." And that is precisely why VFF turns to Growney. Using the smaller blade of his mill he is able to salvage boards from low quality logs, logs that a bigger mill might immediately dismiss as firewood or pulp.
5. Gagnon's Sawmill
With Bob Growney working on the sensitive logs, Vermont Family Forests turned to Ken Gagnon's sawmill in Pittsford, Vermont for the majority of the milling. By industry standards Gagnon runs a small mill, but as far as work goes, they usually handle jobs much larger than Middlebury's specialty order. Gagnon remarked that the smaller VFF jobs are great for him when the inventories are low. "For me, it is a market that I am small enough to fit into that the bigger guys won't mess with." When asked about his practices with respect to any sort of certification he remarked, "I am happy doing it like this, but the economics to go through the certification may not be worth it." He also added, "Ethically, a certification program is fine, but it implies that other wood has not met the same standard-which is not accurate." He referred to sorting as a particular problem of small jobs. At Gagnon's all the sorting is done by hand. "When we have to sort it 4 or 5 different ways. . . ." Gagnon remarked, trailing off to indicate the implied inefficiency. But in spite of the cumbersome nature of Middlebury's order, Gagnon and the five employees required to run the mill quickly completed the milling, sending the boards on their way to the kiln.
6. At the Kiln
The majority of the wood destined for Ross Commons was sent across the state to St. Johnsbury to dry. Here, at the Caledonia Kiln, the roughly milled boards were prepared for several weeks in the kiln. For the wood to dry evenly, it is essential that the boards be stacked in such a way to allow the dry air of the kiln to circulate. Thus, the rough wood that arrived in a mismatched bundle from the mill must be carefully stacked and spaced with scrap boards, such that no two pieces touch. The stacking process, and the destacking once the wood is removed from the kiln, are the most labor-intensive aspect of the drying process. However, once the wood is staked, the job gets easier, for the wood will sit in the kiln until the moisture is literally baked out. But there is still work to be done. Jeremy Jacquet, son of Henri Jacquet the owner of Caledonia Kiln, measures the moisture content in sample boards almost daily to determine when the wood should be removed. Once the wood emerges from the kiln, it is destacked and prepared for shipping. Though no visible transformation has occurred, the drying treatment will help preserve the integrity of the wood long into the future.
7. Belgian Woodworking
Len Schmidt was the mastermind behind the green certified wood's long and lengthy journey through Vermont's local timber and woodworking infrastructure to Middlebury's Ross Commons. Owner of Belgian Woodworking and part time employee for Vermont Family Forests, Schmidt served as the "project manager" for the Ross Commons project. It was his responsibility to route the wood through the correct middlemen or as Schmidt put it, the "local, value-added" companies, mills, kilns, and woodworkers, to achieve the end product desired by the College. The decisions that Schmidt makes in terms of where to send the wood are driven by Vermont Family Forests's vision of a local and sustainable product. As Schmidt says, "Vermont Family Forests is about local value adding. If we have a choice: up the road or to Pennsylvania, we will go up the road every time."
In addition to the massive effort required to coordinate the project, Schmidt handled one of the more sensitive steps of the project in his own workshop: beech paneling for the Ross Lounge. That the Ross Lounge would have beech paneling was nothing extraordinary, but the project architects had decided to sequence the panels such that panels from the same log would align, allowing observers to essentially see individual trees within the paneling. Because of the sequencing and matching required to maintain the accurate placement of panels from the same log, Schmidt performed the drying and initial trimming of the rough lumber at his own shop, Belgian Woodworking. From there, the logs were carefully stored and worked on in sequence until their eventual installation in the Ross Lounge.
8. Tioli Inc.
The beautiful birch ceiling that arches over the Ross Commons dining hall didn't have too far to travel. David Duclos, owner and operator of Tioli Inc., a local woodworking business, assembled the ceiling panels at his Middlebury shop. Of all the hands the wood passed through, Duclos's were perhaps the most important. For it was Duclos who shaped the rough lumber into the finely crafted panels that catch the sunset and bring a warm golden glow to the dining hall. After visiting Duclos at his Middlebury shop, I was impressed not only by his level of craftsmanship but by the care he took to adhere to VFF's vision. It was apparent Duclos understood his role in contributing to sustainable forest management practices.
The process of building a panel involves many steps, the first of which is material management. Duclos and his workers spend a considerable amount of time calculating lengths to minimize waste. As Duclose says, "a 10' bundle does not yield two, 61" pieces, but does yield two, 57" pieces while an 8' bundle yields one 61" piece and one small piece to fill a splice row." The task is a mind-numbing bit of number crunching but is an essential step in maximizing yield and represents the principle advantage to processing wood at the small-scale, local level.
As the wood is sized through a series of crosscut and straight line rips, the good "shorts" are pulled aside for use later in drawer side material. Any high-grade material over 6" is set aside for use in a splice row later. Once all the panel slats are molded to uniform dimensions they are sanded and assembled into a 7 to 9 slat panel. Then after a final machine sanding the panels receive a sealer coat, a finishing hand sanding, and a final top coat of stain. Once they are dry the panels are packed in wax paper for shipment down the road to Middlebury College.
By the end of the process, almost all the raw lumber has been converted into beautiful panels. Those unusable scraps that remain feed woodstoves for winter heat while the sawdust and shavings go to bed cattle. Such is the sustainable vision and discipline that Duclos brings to his work, a sample of which now hangs for all to see in the Ross Commons Dining hall.
9. Stark Mountain Woodworking Inc.
At Stark Mountain Woodwroking Inc. the rough lumber underwent a variety of treatments that transformed it into the sliding doors, baseboard, radial paneling for the food service islands, and the unique sequenced paneling for the Ross Lounge. During any given time at Stark Mountain Woodworking a variety of woodworking projects were underway. With the number of jobs that the company juggles, proper storage of green certified wood is essential to the company's success.
This became particularly important for the thin beech paneling. As beech is notorious for its squirrelly ways and total defiance of staying flat, the paneling for Ross Lounge was heavily weighted and stored in the driest place possible.Crafting the decorative moldings and fine wood products out of the rough lumber takes a skilled hand and a perceptive eye.
When making baseboard, all the individual boards must be examined and paired such that the grain is as homogenous as possible. Once a match is found the boards are glued and clamped together until the joining process is complete. As with Tioli, absolute attention is devoted to minimizing waste. Whether the wood is green certified or not, shorts are saved for drawers and care is taken to use the majority of boards.
10. Going Up
The installation of the Vermont wood into the new Ross Commons facility occurred throughout the spring of 2002. The installation of the ceiling was by far the most extensive and labor intensive process. Each panel had to be trimmed to fit on site due to normal variation in the steel frame. They were then lifted by a pneumatic lift to the ceiling and installed by two carpenters working one panel at a time. Other aspects of the installation--the beech paneling, circular kitchenettes, and wood floor, required similar craftsmanship and were completed late that spring and into the summer.
Today, the Ross Commons Dining Hall feeds hundreds of students everyday. The interior wood provides a warm feel and a comfortable atmosphere for all who frequent the space. Throughout, the craftsmanship is evident. The project stands as a tangible representation of Middlebury College's commitment to sustainable building practices, but perhaps most notable is the place the building has taken in the heart of all those who participated in the use of local interior wood. By all accounts the project is a tremendous success.