The proposal to reduce some design values for Southern yellow pine (SYP) by as much as a third has created fear and concern among some dealers, in part because of uncertainty over just how big a deal the change is, participants in a ProSales discussion say.

The online chat among members of ProSales' LinkedIn group echoed the wide range of anecdotal comments that ProSales reporters have received since the Southern Pine Inspection Board (SPIB) first proposed to the American Lumber Standards Committee (ALSC) a reduction of some building standards to which Southern pine can officially be expected to perform. ALSC conducted a hearing on the issue last month and will hold another hearing on Jan. 5.

"It's a really big deal in southwest Florida," a dealer from Fort Myers wrote. "Many of the homes I sell material for use SYP for the framing of structural walls not to mention the trusses. It's the most cost-effective structural product in our market. Redesign and the cost of engineered lumber would increase cost drastically."

That's not far removed from the opinions expressed by the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) and the Structural Building Components Association. Both have said the change could lead to possible stopped and delays of "thousands" of construction projects using SYP, forced redesigns of planned projects, and "a significant reduction" in the value of SYP now held by dealers, distributors, and builders.

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. Last 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.)

"It appears to be very important," wrote Byron Potter, CEO of Dallas-based DW Distribution, regarding the proposal. "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!"

But others noted that the change won't affect every piece of SYP. The proposal only affects Southern pine that is graded visually rather than by machine. In addition, SYP used for decking also wouldn't be changed.

"There ARE going to be new lower design values for visually graded SYP lumber--it is a reality," said Mike Momb, technical director at Hansen Pole Buildings, Fargo, N.D. "This is due to rapidly grown 'plantation' trees. The lumber cut from the, is just not as strong. It IS important for designers to have accurate material strength information, in order to continue to have safely engineered structures. While every species of wood should undergo frequent testing to monitor strength properties, only SYP is widely grown on farms. Other than perhaps needing to upsize some headers, or floor joists, stick-framed structures will see very little change. Much of the truss industry uses MSR [machine stress-reated] or MEL [machine-evaluated] lumber, the values of each of which are evaluated by machine, so the strength of each piece is a known value. The industry survived in grade testing and revaluation of strengths in 1991, it will survive again."

Jason Blenker of Blenker Building Systems in Wausau, Wis., predicted that the change will make machine-graded versions of Southern pine more popular and cause price increases in both. And the owner of a Memphis, Tenn., area construction company wondered whether there's enough machine-rated SYP available to meet demand. "At a time when we need to increase American manufacturing, the SPIB would have sent us to Canada to buy lumber," he said.

Cally Coleman Fromme, executive vice president of a Victoria, Texas, lumber company and new chair of the NLBMDA, seconded her association's complaint that SPIB didn't publicize the issue enough before it went to ALSC with its proposal. "Clearly, testing and research has been under way for some time," she wrote. "Why was there such little notice? Why was such a big issue kept under wraps?"

"That really is the issue, Cally," replied Robert Uhler, regional manager for the Kansas City, Mo.-based Mid-America Lumbermens Association. "When I'm out talking to our members about this issue. They are asking not about the change in the design values but more about the timing of the whole thing. Also, they want to know what does this mean for the value of there inventory they have on the ground and in the pipeline?"

Those questions remain unanswered. But T.C. Feick, a sustainable building expert based near Philadelphia, offered some historical perspective. "I remember the in-grade studies that revised design values upward around 1990," he wrote. "From what I've read, the proposed reductions pretty much take back those increases.

"It was funny; back then SPIB or someone ran an ad campaign with a big header saying 'Even we didn't know how strong this stuff was,'" Feick continued. "This will put us at a competitive disadvantage as a SYP truss manufacturer, as truss member sizes or design will be altered to compensate for the lower design values. For wall framing this is no big deal, but for floor spans or structural components in trusses, it'll make a big difference."

"For those of us old timers, the same thing happened across the board in 1991," Momb said. "We all dealt with it and came out fine."