The agency responsible for overseeing the setting and publication of performance standards for lumber notified the construction supply industry Wednesday that it will hold a second hearing within two months of today's meeting at which it will take up a controversial proposal to lower design values for Southern pine.

The notice from the American Lumber Standards Committee (ALSC) makes certain that the group won't use today's meeting to approve the technical proposal submitted by the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau (SPIB). ALSC said its second hearing would be held roughly 60 days after Oct. 20.

"The board encourages all affected parties to submit their comments in writing or in person," ALSC's notice said. But then it added: "Parties should be mindful that the proposed changes are significant and should take steps they deep appropriate in the interim." It didn't elaborate.

At issue are "design values," the properties that builders can count on Southern pine delivering when they use it in construction. Among those design values are the wood's load values--its ability to resist bending, tension, and compression, as well as the product's general stiffness. Earlier this month, SPIB submitted to ALSC a set of proposed new design values that in four out of seven values are 20% to 35% lower than the old ones. The other three values remain unchanged. (The Southern Forest Products Association (SFPA), an information agency, has written a Q&A summary of the proposal, plus a news release with more background information.)

If ALSC accepts SPIB's proposals, the new design values could force builders, remodelers, and architects to reduce the maximum spans for joists and rafters they had planned to build with Southern pine; buy higher, more expensive, grades of Southern pine; buy other species of wood; or perhaps even shift to different construction materials.

But by the time ALSC finishes its reviews, more species than just Southern pine could see their design values chopped. Southern pine is getting the attention now because in many ways, SPIB is further along in its review process than authorities responsible for setting design values for wood grown in the Northeast and Northwest U.S. ALSC's Oct. 12 notice regarding today's meeting noted that several other agencies similar to SPIB "are immediately undertaking evaluation of their resources and have submitted sampling and testing plans for their species." ALSC already has asked the U.S. Forest Service's Forest Products Lab to review those plans.

It's not easy to estimate the change's potential impact on the construction industry, because the proposal affects just one type of wood and because the changes exempt Southern pine products graded by machine. It's also unclear how many trusses and other structural components of wood-framed buildings are put up in ways that count on Southern pine to perform at the peak of its officially ascribed values.

The National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) and the Structural Building Components Association (SBCA) are among the two groups that have screamed loudest over SPIB's proposal to ALSC. Both groups said in anouncements earlier this week that ALSC approval of the proposal could lead to "possible stoppage and delays to thousands of" projects, as well as forced redesigns of buidlings and projects, plus a "significant reduction" in the value of Southern pine now held in inventory for dealers, component manufacturers and builders.

SBCA and NLBMDA also complained about being caught unawares by the news. "SBCA finds it implausible that the lumber design value reductions now being suggested by SPIB occurred without previous warning or notice of some type as they were responsible for monitoring lumber properties," the Madison, Wis.-based association declared. "... The obvious question that needs an answer is: Are we to conclude that a 2x4 with a load resisting value of 1,500 per square inch changes almost overnight to a value of approximately 1,000 psi?"

Some industry executives, speaking off the record, told ProSales they felt NLBMDA and SCBA were blowing the issue out of proportion. There are too many variables going into the production of trusses and other structural members to say definitively that these changes will damage the industry.

Members of the ProSales group on LinkedIn gave varied assessments. "Right now with all the unknowns it is too early to say," one declared. "If new design criteria is adopted the real story becomes the timeline of enforcement and liability issues, making it REAL important." A second commented that "Anything that reduces confidence, introduces doubt, raises costs or has a hint of a quasi-government body forcing itself upon industry with little warning ... Is a big deal!" And a third declared: "It will be interesting to see if this change has adverse affects on the other structural lumber products such as Doug fir, Hem Fir, SPF and Red Pine! For years Yellow Pine has bin viewed as a pillar of strength."

NLBMDA's concerns stem in part from the believe that the new design values could reduce the value of Southern pine inventories at lumberyards and distributors because the visually graded lumber that dealers have in stock automatically would get ascribed to it the new design values as soon as SPIB publishes them. One commenter has said the changes mean, in effect, that what used to be No. 2 Southern pine now will carry the same price as No. 3 today. As SFPA's summary of the proposal gently put it: "Existing inventory can still be used, but it may need to be used differently."

The change also may have little practical impact in construction given a major reason why it's being proposed: The belief that wood today lacks some of the qualities that it had in 1991, when SPIB's design values last were set. It's generally believed that an increasing part of the harvest consists of relatively young, thin trees. Given that fact, some experts say, it's logical that those immature trees don't perform the same as lumber taken from older, bigger trees.