During the reconstruction following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, many houses were built with coconut lumber – a material whose physical properties are not well known and understood in the structural engineering community. As part of my research includes creating structural models of the types of houses built following Haiyan, understanding how coconut lumber behaves is critical. So, when I struggled to find documentation on the properties of coconut lumber from the literature, there was only one option – test it myself and find out. Here’s a step-by-step guide of the year and a half process of how I’ve done (am doing) this.
- Review the options of how and where you are going to test the lumber. Decide that importing lumber is the best option.
- Go to the local FedEx office in the community where you are shipping the lumber from and figure out what all is required for international shipments of wood.
- Freak out a bit and become briefly overwhelmed with what you need to do to import lumber into the United States.
- Take a deep breath and get to work.
- Review the relevant regulations from the United States Department of Agriculture (7CFR305, 7CFR§319.6, 7CFR§319.7, 7CFR§319.40, and the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act for those keeping score at home).
- Freak out again.
- Reread the regulations – this time highlighting the sections that pertain to you and keeping a detailed to-do list of all the paperwork you will need to complete.
- Apply for an import permit from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
- While waiting for an import permit, touch base with whoever is helping you procure and ship the lumber from the shipping location. Have them interface with the agency supplying an export permit (in this case the Bureau of Plant and Industry). Learn that nothing can happen on their end until you have received an import permit and can provide documentation.
- Wait some more. During this time, go back to the FedEx office to determine just how to ship the lumber – size/cost/time/etc.
- Receive your import permit.
- Go back to the Bureau of Plant and Industry to receive your export permit.
- Realize that you need additional documentation – a letter summarizing need/uses of the lumber, a brief research proposal, and confirmed quantity of lumber to be shipped.
- Receive your export permit.
- Purchase your shipping container and, finally, your coconut lumber. Cut to size. Pack the container. Attach the necessary documentation – copies of the import and export permits, descriptions of the product and any treatment it has received, contact information for the importer.
- Take the lumber to FedEx and ship!
- JK…have the lumber sent to the main national shipping hub and returned to the original point of departure because you need to treat the lumber.
- Heat treat the lumber for a week.
- Receive a new export permit.
- Take the lumber back to FedEx and cross your fingers this time.
- Call the port of entry in the US to notify them of an expected plant delivery.
- After a week of limbo, finally receive your coconut lumber!
- Now, it’s time to test. (Or more accurately, wait a few months and then test).
- While you’re waiting to test, think about what information you most need to capture from the tests of the coconut lumber to include in your models (flexural strength and stiffness, strength/behavior of connections) and determine what tests will give you this information (static bending tests, TBD).
- Since you have lumber specimens that are sized based on what you were physically able to ship, review the relevant ASTM standards (D143, D4761, D198, and D2555 again for those keeping score at home). Select a standard testing protocol.
- Work with your testing lab to make sure they have the appropriate testing apparatus (I’m looking at you, 11-kip Instron machine).
- Schedule lab time.
- Gather some pieces of cheap scrap wood (you don’t want to waste the lumber you worked so hard to import) to familiarize yourself with the machine and determine the appropriate loading rate.
- Schedule additional lab time and get excited, cause you’re finally going to test your coconut lumber!
- Bring a tripod so that you can video record the tests that you have waited oh so long for.
- Test your first two pieces and have them fail in shear instead of flexure.
- Go back to the drawing board.
- Next steps to be determined…to be updated once I have successfully tested my coconut lumber specimens.
While the above steps might be filled with humor – a necessity during this long process – procuring, importing, and testing this lumber has been a challenging endeavor, during which I have learned much that I never anticipated I would. Friends and family have been privy to a handful of emotional outbursts as I realized I needed yet another piece of paperwork, had my shipment returned to its point of origin, or had my specimens fail in ways I didn’t expect or need. To them, I say, thanks for sticking with me. To my assistants in the Philippines who went on the paperwork rollercoaster with me, I cannot thank you enough!
I am so close to the results we sought out to achieve a year and a half ago that I can almost taste it…and I cannot wait to mark this goal off my PhD to-do list.
So, stick with me…photos and videos to be posted sooo soon. And, if you ever find yourself trying to import lumber into the United States, let me know – I can help you out.