When builders think of going green in coming years, which construction products are they most likely to put into their homes? After low-E windows, by 2015 it'll be engineered wood beams, trusses, and joists, a National Association of Home Builders survey found. That green propulsion is one reason why APA-the Engineered Wood Association estimates I-joist production will rise 24% from 2009 levels to reach 571 million square feet this year, while LVL (laminated veneer lumber) production should increase 33% in the same period to total 43.4 million cubic feet.
And here's another big reason: Builders like it.
"It's by far the material of the future," says builder Al Durden of SF Communities in Macon, Ga., who will never go back to dimensional lumber for roof trusses or floor joists even though I-joists and LVL truss chords cost more up front. "When you factor in the time you save, the less material waste, it's cheaper to use engineered wood by far," APA predicts I-joist usage in new single-family homes' floors, which shrank from 52% in 2008 to 43% last year, will climb back to 49% by 2014.
Engineered wood products (EWP) are a more logical choice now that 20 states have adopted 2009 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) standards, which has homes saving 15% more energy than those built to the previous code. The changes have prompted builders to get creative with ways to tighten air infiltration, pack in insulation, and keep heating and cooling costs low.
"The builder is looking to the dealer to help him with these solutions," says Doug McNeill, marketing manager for Norbord, where oriented strand board (OSB) sales in 2010 soared 47% from 2009. McNeill says a large portion of the increase was due to energy-efficient products, such as TallWall OSB sheathing, which can reduce air leakage by 60%; the high-wind version; Windstorm; and the heat-repelling foil-laminated Solarbord.
Durden's EWP-laden homes are billed as 30% more efficient than the 2009 IECC requires, which he attributes in part to Huber's ZIP System. Now there's also ZIP System linerless tape that makes installation less messy while continuing to seal out moisture.
To bolster insulation, iLevel by Weyerhaeuser introduced TJ Insulated products in January, rim boards and structural corners backed with foam to achieve thermal values of R-10 and R-30, respectively, and a header that sandwiches the insulation between laminated strand lumber (LSL) and OSB for an R-17 rating. Similar products such as rSTUD headers by EC Manufacturing, ExpressHeaders by SJS Components, and Ray-Core's header systems offer more ways to meet the code.
LP Building Products saw market share continue to grow for its TechShield Radiant Barrier Sheathing, says LP director of corporate marketing Rusty Carroll. Similar products include the Eclipse Radiant Barrier panels by Roy O. Martin, SolarPly by Coastal Plywood, and Ainsworth's Thermastrand radiant barrier roof sheathing.
Boise Cascade, meanwhile, seeks to make EWP even more popular by urging builders to put up homes that run HVAC lines through conditioned spaces. Generally, that means routing ducts through EWP trusses between the first and second floors rather than putting duct lines in cold basements and hot attics. Boise thinks its system can cut a home's energy bill by 35%.
"The energy codes are becoming more and more stringent, so builders are trying to find the most cost-effective ways to meet those energy codes," observes Carroll. And none too soon: The International Code Council plans to tighten requirements in the 2012 IECC to boost energy efficiency by another 15%.
A smaller utility bill is an enticing perk for homeowners, but another way EWP win paybacks is by saving builders work. Pre-cut I-joists, pre-fabricated floor systems, and lumber labeled with its precise location in the field enable the project to snap together in a fraction of the time, says dealer Brad Butts, products manager at Lummus Supply. His yard put in an automated cutting station for engineered wood just to compete with dealers in Atlanta, he says.
"We design the floor system, put it into the computer, and it sends the material list out to an automated saw," Butts says. "It cuts it, routes holes for HVAC, labels it, and then punches it off the table."
With software systems like iLevel's Nextphase site solutions, take-offs and design schemes link the framing plans to the saw and can save up to 50% construction time compared with standard framing practices, says iLevel's Don Schwabe, director of marketing and U.S. sales for EWP.
When the dealer delivers the stacks, he says, "builders simply put it together like a LEGO building. It's very, very simple."
Most manufacturers have downloadable design software to use with their products, among them International Beam's software package, Anthony Power Sizer by Anthony Forest Products, and FastBeam Design Software by Georgia Pacific.
There is a drawback: Gone are the days when Butts could hire a guy off the street to saw holes in I-joists for minimum wage. Now, "the person has to be a little bit more acquainted with computers and automation in general to get it done," he says. And Schwabe says the challenge with these systems is the initial investment, both in the cost and the time it takes to learn.
High-tech cutters are not the only way to shave time. Rosboro took out steps for builders and dealers with the X-beam, an architecturally finished glulam beam in full 3.5- and 5.5-inch widths.
"As an industry, this is something we've been asked for years: 'Why doesn't glulam match up with standard wall widths?'" says Rosboro's glulam sales manager, David Smith. Now the sizes save the builder from planing unfinished beams and dealers from stocking multiple SKUs. They also cut the cost of hanger hardware because the hangers do not need to be custom-ordered, Smith says.
With the time-saving advances in EWP, Durden can frame a two-story, 5,000-square-foot house in three and a half days; with dimensional lumber, it takes about three weeks, he says. But faster construction time is not the only reason EWP is fast overtaking the conventional methods.
"There's literally a zero-waste factor," says Durden. "I have more Sheetrock waste than I have lumber waste. When my guys get through framing a 2,882-square-foot house, all of the scrap will fit in the back of my pickup truck." Construction, renovation, and demolition debris total about 160 million tons per year, accounting for almost two-thirds of non-industrial U.S. trash, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
SolidStart LSL is LP Building Product's new OSB-like version of the LVL; it uses fewer trees by compacting wood chips from young wood, and is selling well at Huttig Supply in Tigard, Ore., where EWP specialist Mike Adams calls it "waste wood fiber" technology.
"If wood's not available to cut square boards out of, chip it. It's a trend we should start looking at instead of waiting for the trees to get to a useable size," says Adams.
Shuqualak Lumber is experimenting with a new product, Scrimtec, manufactured from immature pine cuttings. Then there's Lamboo LVB, laminated veneer bamboo beams and trusses.
"I don't want everyone else to find out about it or they'll be able to build as cost effective as I am," Durden says. "Right now, I have a serious competitive edge on saving money."
And if the saw in Lummus Supply's yard keeps cutting time, energy, and waste, Butts predicts, "once the market starts emerging, I think engineered wood will take even a bigger bite out of the market than it did before. Any builders that are still building won't be using dimension lumber as they did."