Tucked into a hideaway on the border of Tacoma and University Place, behind a secure wrought-iron fence, sits a little known laboratory where six Ph.D.s and a staff of highly trained researchers celebrate failure over and over again.
For the last 86 years, the failures of the scientists in Tacoma have made many millionaires across North America.
Beginning this month, thanks to a multimillion-dollar investment, these scientists are rubbing their palms together in giddiness over their new ability to fail in more spectacular fashion than ever before.
APA — The Engineered Wood Products Association has built a towering, high-tech open warehouse where it will test the latest wood inventions that allow for modern high-rises fashioned from wood.
Already in Washington and Oregon, based in part on the laboratory experiments of APA scientists, newly adopted building codes allow wood-framed buildings up to 18 stories high — an unheard-of height when for decades wood framing topped out at five stories.
Some heavy hitters — Weyerhaeuser, Boise Cascade, George Pacific, and scores of smaller manufacturers across the United States and Canada — have ponied up to find out whether their natural, renewable engineered wood products may eventually prove stronger than steel.
Don’t doubt it.
Under construction today in downtown Tacoma, the inaugural tower that will anchor Horizon Partners NW’s multibuilding Brewery Blocks project just south of UW Tacoma on Commerce Street stands 14 stories high — the tallest yet built with cross-laminated timber. It just eked past the new 12-story Framework tower in Portland’s Pearl District. (Cross-laminated timber? Think plywood, but instead of thin layers of glued veneer, thick layers of glued lumber the size of 2-by-4s.)
Roaming the floors of APA’s enclave for the last 28 years, you would find Dr. B.J. Yeh. Now director of APA’s Technical Services Division, he oversees the experiments. He can’t wait to start testing larger cross-laminated timbers, I-joists, structural composite lumber, and glulam beams all pieced together, then battered, twisted, soaked, dried, compressed, weighted, and bent until they break.
“We are excited,” Yeh said recently, showing off the new testing bay.
Thank goodness APA exists. If you live in a house, apartment building, or condominium built after APA formed in 1933, originally as the Douglas Fir Plywood Association, chances are the plywood or oriented-strand board (plywood-sized sheets made of glued-together wood chips) in your residence has an APA quality stamp on it.
And you know it won’t fail.
“Yes, failure,” Yeh explained. “We test all engineered wood products sent to us by our members to the point of failure.” That way, when APA validates a product for construction uses, it confidently endorses building codes that allow architects and engineers and contractors to load it up to 70 percent of its breaking point.
It all began with plywood.
Big names in the wood industry from Tacoma, Olympia, Centralia, Aberdeen, and Portland gathered in Portland in May 1933 to form the Douglas Fir Plywood Association. A month later, they met for their first formal meeting at the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma.
Before the wood manufacturers pooled their resources to develop testing and industry standards, their track record was spotty — especially since plywood made by different companies to differing standards got tested in real-life applications.
During Word War I, plywood companies began making airplane propellers. But if you flew the plane in the rain, you’d find out quickly that the nonwaterproof glue made from animal blood would disintegrate.
After Henry Ford’s groundbreaking Model T became the first mass-produced automobile in America, carmakers began jazzing up their makes with plywood running boards and floors. Same problem. They might last just fine in Arizona, but when repeatedly drenched and dried, they fell apart.
The real home run for plywood manufacturers came from making interior doors. The story goes that on weekends, the lumberjacks would flood out of Olympic Peninsula forests and into the bars of McCleary in east Grays Harbor County. After some drinks, they’d head to a popular hotel and routinely pound on the doors until the wood planks broke. Exasperated, the hotelier eventually replaced the wood plank doors with plywood. After that, the door-pounding continued only for a short time as the lumberjacks left with bruised fists — and the doors intact.
So, when you check out Incline Cider or Bitterroot BBQ in the Brewery Blocks this summer, look up and down. The ceilings and floors? Made from cross-laminated timber. Feel free to jump up and down to your heart’s content. You won’t break anything. Thanks to the glorious failures of Dr. Yeh and the APA.