By Cody Johnston
Kyle Hanson has seen first-hand how Durango, Colorado’s affordable housing crisis has impacted the community over the last decade.
“Most poignant for me was watching my kids try and hold onto a good teacher, rarely able to stay in the region or school system for longer than three years before they were moving on,” said Hanson.
Exacerbated by Covid-19 and the ensuing real estate frenzy, the housing crisis has swept through Southwestern Colorado—in La Plata County alone, the number of houses sold for $750,000 or more increased 169% between 2018 and 2021, while those priced at less than $250,000 declined by 37%.
Hanson spent years seeking to understand the region’s issues surrounding housing, building costs, and job seasonality, while working as a coach and consultant for the Murli Group, as well as an LLC he founded.
It was through these career milestones of entrepreneurship that Hanson discovered Durango’s penchant for high-minded enterprise and mission-driven partnerships.
“It’s always going to have this group of people that value something that has meaning beyond just money,” said Hanson. “It’s a place that has this underlying heart and yearning to do things that have meaning,” he added.
Programs like the Southwest Colorado Accelerator for Entrepreneurs (SCAPE), La Plata County’s Economic Development Alliance, as well as Fort Lewis College’s intellectual capital help create a thriving startup community.
But it wasn’t just the entrepreneurial ecosystem that drove Hanson to co-found Timber Age Systems in Durango during 2018—it was the intersection of forest health, affordable housing, and job creation.
After leaving his position as General Manager of Operations at Western Excelsior Corp in 2016, Hanson learned about cross-laminated timber (CLT), an Austrian-born engineering solution that spread throughout Europe in the 2000s as a residential construction product.
Manufacturers like Timber Age Systems play a delicately-engineered game of Jenga to create their CLT products, stacking trimmed and treated lumber boards crosswise to form large slabs that builders then utilize as a lower-cost, energy-efficient alternative to concrete and steel. This can not only reduce the construction time, but also increase the speed to occupancy.
As a wood products manufacturing company, Timber Age Systems harnesses the regenerative power of forests throughout the San Juans by sourcing small diameter, Ponderosa pine and engineering CLT products that are then sold and incorporated into timber-based construction.
“If we use really good building science, we get these very durable buildings that potentially have lifetimes of 150 to 300 years,” said Hanson.
After garnering support for his vision from La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, former CO Senator Ellen Roberts, as well as a myriad of timber industry consultants and community stakeholders, Hanson applied for the 2018 US Forest Service Wood Innovation Grant, eventually winning and receiving a $243,000 infusion to develop a proof of concept of building cross-laminated timber from ponderosa pine.
The grant provided the foundation for conversation and refinement—allowing Hanson, his co-founder, Andy Hawk, and a team of local advisors to interview almost 200 individuals.
“We talked to bankers, architects, engineers, and real estate agents…all the people that we could think of that would help us understand where the current market and current approach were falling down,” said Hanson.
The market-validated vision from these discussions launched Timber Age Systems into its next chapter, participating in SCAPE as part of its 2020 cohort and entry into Colorado NextCycle, a business incubator program under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“We have some of the best advisors that the United States or that the world has to offer that are helping us think about what we’re doing,” said Hanson.
Winning NextCycle’s 2020 pitch session led to Timber Age being awarded more than $400,000 from the state of Colorado’s Recycling Resource Economic Opportunity (RREA) grant program, allowing the burgeoning startup to expand manufacturing capacity, as well as hire additional employees, and utilize more locally harvested ponderosa pines.
Ponderosa pine is ubiquitous to the West—it’s pine forests, woodlands, and savannas occupy approximately 2 million acres in Colorado alone.
But with more standing dead trees than ever, Colorado forests are densely-packed tinderboxes, largely due to insect infestations and drought, and in desperate need of thinning. There are over 834 million standing dead trees in Colorado, yet 90% of building lumber is imported from out of state. Timber Age Systems has created a localized, forward-thinking model for upcycling this abundant resource of the Four Corners region’s forests into affordable housing construction in rural communities.
“By shrinking things down, we get more learning cycles,” said Hanson. “The faster we can learn as communities, the more effective our cooperation will be,” he added.
Timber Age Systems has partnered with the town of Ignacio, La Plata Electric Association, as well as local investors to build their first pilot homes for the workforce in the town of Ignacio throughout 2023.
“Five years from now, what we’re going to see is developed neighborhoods that are national examples of excellence in terms of high-performance, attainable housing that has almost negative embodied carbon,” said Hanson.