Let's talk mass timber

Maria Church
June 06, 2017
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June 6, 2017 - It’s time to talk about mass timber.

You can’t go to an industry conference today without hearing about the mass timber movement, and more specifically about cross-laminated timber – the wood panels that make up the 18-storey UBC Brock Commons building, the world’s tallest wood building to date.

Both the pre-fabricated CLT panels and the glulam pillars used in the hybrid building were made at Structurlam’s Okanagan Falls, B.C., facility.

Michael Green, the principal behind forward-thinking architecture firm MGA, told the Council of Forest Industries conference in April that Canada is leading a mass timber charge that is sweeping the global architecture industry. In the race for the top, Brock Commons won’t be the highest for long.

Green emphasized from an architectural perspective the strength and stability of mass timber (in case you were wondering, yes, the Empire State Building could have been built with mass timber), and the environmental benefits of building with wood. We all know there’s a growing market for green building products thanks to favourable government policies.

It’s encouraging to hear from a proponent of building with wood who is outside the forest products industry. Public support for wood products is undoubtedly good for our industry.

But what do mass timber and trends in architecture have to do with Canadian sawmills that are pumping out dimension lumber?

Structurlam president Bill Downing’s mass timber keynote at the Ontario Forest Industries Association conference in March ended with this message: sawmills need to help out.

The biggest stumbling block preventing mass timber from taking off in high-rise construction is the high cost of the engineered timber. That begins with the cost of lumber from mills that are challenged to cut to specifications.

Why cut to specifications when there’s a strong market for 2x4s?

This is a good time to think about that question. The U.S. countervailing duties landed in Canada April 24, slapping on a tariff that’s as high as 24 per cent on Canada’s softwood exports to the U.S. The anti-dumping duty is expected in June. It’s now up to the federal government to challenge the duties and this will take time. For most companies this is déjà vu; they will react by reining in production, closing up a few shops, and waiting out the storm.

But there is another option: re-evaluate how we cut lumber.

“We should be the first and best customers of what’s in our own backyard,” Peter Moonen, national sustainability manager for the Canadian Wood Council, told OptiSaw West attendees in late April (read coverage on page 31). Moonen presented on new trends in construction and what they represent for Canada’s sawmills.

Building codes in North America are changing and the lumber industry needs to be on top of those changes. There’s a growing focus on low-carbon construction (building with wood stores carbon), densification and pre-fabrication of homes. Energy efficient passive homes use as much as 30 per cent more wood than traditionally built houses, Moonen said – that’s good news for the industry.

At the same event USNR’s Sam Pope encouraged the audience to consider CLT machinery and explained how it can be installed in existing sawmills. USNR’s pneumatic press configuration is modular and can be customized according to the product. As more CLT grades are approved in North America, more product sizes will follow, Pope said.

Some Canadian sawmills have already found success in diversifying whether that means expanding their product offerings, venturing into biomass or looking to markets in Asia or Europe. Maibec’s St-Pamphile mill in Quebec is a great example (read that story on page 50).

Mass timber is another avenue of diversity that still needs to be explored by Canada’s mills.

Few success stories begin with companies choosing the easy path, paved with money. It’s time for sawmills to evaluate how they can help further the mass timber agenda and, in the long run, tap in to this blossoming new market.

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