In February this year I moderated an informative panel discussion during the Holzbau Pacific Northwest conference in Vancouver, BC. Held just a month before the Mass Timber Conference in Portland, Oregon, the smaller Holzbau event was focused squarely on manufacturing-related topics, of interest to those companies currently producing mass timber, as well as industry watchers and potential future manufacturers.
On the panel were Ron McDougall and Jean-Marc Dubois from CLT manufacturers Structurlam and Nordic Structures respectively, as well as Andre Lema from Alberta glulam producer Western Archrib and Lucas Epp from StructureCraft Builders, whose firm has just launched a no-adhesive dowel laminated timber product -the first to do so in North America. We started by asking the panel what the biggest challenges are for them in growing the markets for their products. Familiar themes were raised - such as building codes that don’t yet fully address mass timber products, lack of installation know-how, and designers not fully understanding fire, acoustics and prefabrication questions in sufficient detail. Encouragingly, all of the panelists acknowledged that progress is being made on all these fronts. On prefabrication, it was pointed out that the factory-built nature of mass timber floors and walls means more money must be put on the table pre-construction, versus stick frame methods that result in higher labor costs during construction itself. This need to commit funds earlier in the project can serve as a barrier in some cases, even though faster onsite assembly more than compensates in terms of overall cost.
We moved on to look at the relatively mature European mass timber market compared to North America. What are the key differences? The nature of the labor pool was seen as a major differentiator. Mainland Europe’s strong tradition of apprenticeships in carpentry trades results in a greater availability of skilled labor who possess a detailed knowledge of timber, manufacturing methods and specialized timber-specific computer aided design software. The maturity of the market itself is of course a huge difference, resulting in less code barriers and better designer/specifier understanding of the products. There is also much greater competition, and typical production facilities tend to boast much higher production capacities, levels of automation and accompanying economies of scale. The vertical integration of many European companies, who often own woodlands or sawmills, is another factor of note.
The final queston we posed was whether we will get to a point in the near future when North American mass timber products are fully cost competitive with imports from major European producers such as KLH, Stora Enso and others? One panel member commented that in some ways the dynamics of the North American lumber industry were “stacked against us”, but others were more optimistic. As codes evolve to include mass timber products, we can expect costs to drop as the need for third-party alternative methods evaluations lessens. Low unemployment rates in the US - currently at historic lows of around 4% - are causing rising labor costs in several regional markets, and this may sway developers in favor of mass timber products due to prefabrication and the rapid speed of onsite installation. And as the pool of designers, engineers and contractors who are familiar with mass timber grows, we can expect to see these buildings delivered more and more cost-effectively. The recently-completed T3 building in Minneapolis was delivered for the same cost as an equivalent concrete/steel solution, and this is a promising sign that the economics of North American mass timber are moving in the right direction.
The Holzbau Pacific Northwest Conference was hosted by the Centre for Advanced Wood Processing (CAWP) at University of British Columbia in partnership with TallWood Design Institute and University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). The next event will be hosted by UNBC in Fall 2017. Holzbau Forum is the world’s largest network of professional learning events on wood construction. The flagship conference is held in Garmisch, Germany, each December and draws around 1500 international delegates. Affiliated events are held annually in France, Italy, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.
By Iain Macdonald, Associate Director, TallWood Institute