Editors' Note: This is the first is an occasional series of articles called "Future Shocks." In it, we'll look just over the horizon of LBM's future, five to 10 years out, to products and building processes that likely will be part of your operations in the year 2023.
After years of having to look abroad, advocates of cross-laminated timbers (CLTs) can finally point to projects being built with the material in the United States as well as to a U.S.-based mill producing the stuff. That makes it increasingly likely you’ll sell CLTs, particularly if you serve multifamily and commercial builders. But odds are you’ll market it as a special-order product rather than stock it as a commodity.
CLTs are solid wood structural panels made from dried dimensional lumber that’s stacked together at right angles in multiple layers. The stack then is bonded under pressure with an adhesive, creating blocks up to a foot tall at lengths topping 40 feet. CLTs are best known for their role in building structures of six to 14 stories across Europe, Canada, and Australia. But they aren’t the only type of wood structures that are gaining market share from steel and concrete. The general category, known as mass timber, is winning proponents who say you often can build faster and cheaper with wood than with steel or concrete, and tell a better environmental story in the process.
Regulatory restrictions have hampered CLTs’ popularity in the United States, but steady pushing by advocacy group have helped get CLTs approved by the International Code Council for inclusion in the 2015 International Building Code. In late 2014, a Seattle company framed a 1,500-square-foot infill home using CLT panels, and Oregon State University is planning a Forest Science Complex built from CLTs.
On the production side, SmartLam Technology Group of Whitefish, Mont., has been making CLTs since the fall of 2012 and intends to build and launch a new CLT plant by next fall. And in Riddle, Ore., DR Johnson has received a grant to retool its lamination works to produce CLTs.
Despite the Seattle example involving a single-family detached home (see photo at left), SmartLam president and general manager Casey Malmquist doubts there will be many cases in which a builder will go to a dealer and buy standard-dimension CLTs. “A more likely scenario would be one in which you work with an architect, designer, and engineering group and design and specify particular elements that create a particular product” sold as a special order, he says.
CLTs also are likely to be an installed sales operation, especially at first, because as Malmquist puts it, “it’s going to take a different mindset and a different toolbox” to use this new resource. “You can’t just manufacture a lot of CLTs and drop things off and expect people to figure it out,” he says. “For it to be successful, you may need a mobile crew to assist in the assembly.”