Michael A. Dunn, Richard P. Vlosky and Todd F. Shupe
Southern yellow pine (SYP) has for many years provided the homebuilding industry with abundant, cost-competitive wood products. Recent research indicates that softwood lumber, including SYP, continues to lose market share in the U.S. residential construction industry to substitute products such as concrete, steel and plastic and that builders remain concerned about softwood lumber quality and price. Further, some studies have reported that different user groups perceive that lumber quality in general has decreased in recent years.
To ascertain homebuilders’ perceptions of SYP lumber quality, a questionnaire was sent to the largest 500 homebuilders in the United States as measured by sales in 2000. Of the 500 homebuilders sent surveys, 198 responses (40 percent) were received and used in the study. Respondents were relatively well-dispersed throughout the United States (Figure 1). The highest region of response came from the southern region (39 percent) and the lowest region of response was the northeast region (14 percent).
Homebuilders responding to the survey perceive that the quality of southern yellow pine (SYP) lumber has changed over the past 50 years. Nearly half (48 percent) stated that they believe SYP quality has declined. Another 15 percent stated that quality has stayed the same, while 9 percent stated that quality has improved. Twenty-six percent responded that they did not know or were unsure.
Those that responded that SYP quality had declined over the past 50 years were further asked their opinions on why the quality had declined. Sixty-eight respondents stated that SYP warps in service, while another 47 stated that SYP trees are grown too fast. Thirty-five stated that it is kiln-dried too rapidly, and 34 stated that SYP has too many knots.
Respondents were asked to rank criteria used in building new houses based on their perceptions of the importance of various items to homebuyers (Figure 2). Respondents ranked each criterion on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 signifying “not important at all” and 5 signifying “very important.” Respondents ranked all of the seven criteria above the midpoint (3.0) in level of importance. Of the 182 responses, housing cost (4.5), resale value (4.4) and energy efficiency (4.2) were cited as most important. Resistance to flooding (3.2), followed by absence of chemicals (3.5), wind damage resistance (3.7) and insect damage resistance (3.9) were cited as relatively less important.
Respondents were asked to rank on a scale of 1 (“not at all”) to 5 (“significantly”) growing conditions that might influence wood quality. The factors were soil, rainfall, proximity to municipal landfills, growth rate, tree straightness and geographic location. The most important criterion was tree straightness (4.2) followed by rainfall (4.1), rate of growth (3.9), soil (3.7) and geographic location (3.6).
In a related question, 72 percent of respondents stated that wide rings negatively affect lumber quality either somewhat or significantly, while 10 percent thought they had no effect. Another 18 percent did not know whether or not wide rings negatively affect lumber quality. Also, 74 percent of respondents felt that rate of tree growth affects lumber quality, while 10 percent said it did not, and 16 percent did not know.
Respondents were also asked to rate the importance of species selection in specifying projects. Fully 64 percent of respondents replied that species selection was either somewhat important or very important. Twelve percent replied that this criterion was either somewhat unimportant or extremely unimportant.
More than half of the respondents had a somewhat positive (40 percent) or extremely positive (13 percent) perception of SYP. Eight percent of respondents expressed a somewhat negative (6 percent) or extremely negative (2 percent) perception of SYP. Twenty-eight percent of respondents rated SYP as either somewhat superior (21 percent) or extremely superior (7 percent) to other species of lumber, while 15 percent rated SYP as somewhat inferior (11 percent) or extremely inferior (4 percent) to other species of lumber.
Respondents were further asked their willingness to build a house using SYP. Eighty-three percent responded that they would be willing to use SYP in housing construction while 17 percent said they would not. Of the 17 percent that responded negatively, 35 percent stated that it is a poor building material, 24 percent stated that its long-term performance is unknown, 20 percent stated cost and 20 percent stated warp as deterrents.
Respondents indicated a variety of applications where they use SYP (Figure 3). More respondents use SYP for structural components in the construction of a new house than for any other reason. Multiple responses were possible for this survey question. Other popular applications of SYP included decks, landscaping timbers, outdoor structures and interior walls.
Results indicate that homebuilders perceive that homebuyers are most influenced by economic factors associated with construction. In all regions of the country, respondents list cost of the house, resale value and energy efficiency as key factors. Other factors that might be perceived by some to be more important in particular regions (for example, resistance to termite damage in the South or resistance to wind damage in the north central region) were not given significant importance to replace traditional economic factors as top priorities. This indicates that homebuilders are still guided by traditional cost factors in determining the makeup of the constructed unit.
The majority of homebuilders participating in the survey view SYP favorably. Further, a large majority state they are willing to use SYP in the construction of houses. However, there are indications they perceive the quality of SYP products to be declining. As long as SYP remains price competitive with its substitute products and homebuilders perceive it to be a quality product, it will likely maintain a strong market share.
On the other hand, producers of SYP lumber can likely improve market share for their product if they can develop appropriate marketing strategies that tout their product’s performance and price. It is possible that a niche market could be established for dense, slow-grown SYP lumber; however, it is more likely that fast-grown SYP lumber is here to stay.
The industry could be well-served by developing innovative marketing strategies that emphasize how lumber grading rules ensure structural integrity and design reliability for the builder or other end-user. The key is consumer education. When lumber consumers are better educated regarding lumber grade rules, the effects of moisture on basic wood properties, and when and how to select and use preservative-treated lumber, their understanding of lumber’s uses and benefits could lead to an even more positive perception of the product.
Michael A. Dunn, associate professor, Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness; Richard P. Vlosky, professor; and Todd F. Shupe, associate professor, School of Renewable Natural Resources, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.
(This article appeared in the winter 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)