Are Southern Softwood Lumber Manufacturers Ready for the Cross-Laminated Timber Industry?

Richard Vlosky and Mason T. LeBlanc

Cross-laminated timber is a multilayer mass timber product spanning two directions with precision accuracy, resulting in a secure, airtight building solution for any floor, wall, roof or core. Serving as a significantly lighter replacement for concrete, cross-laminated timber uses wood exclusively from sustainably managed forests. Cross-laminated timber opens the door to a new, ecologically friendly way to construct mass timber buildings of the 21st century. One of the biggest benefits of mass timber panels as compared with other types of structures is the ability to prefabricate the entire project. This saves time and money on-site because the installation process becomes more efficient.

The LSU AgCenter Louisiana Forest Products Development Center partnered with more than a dozen university, government and industry entities to conduct an analysis of the market environment and potential of cross-laminated timber in the U.S. South constructed from Southern yellow pine. Previous cross-laminated timber research and development has focused on using Douglas fir and other species from the Pacific Northwest as well as spruce-pine-fir from Canada and imported species from Europe.

An emerging sector in the U.S.

Mass timber is a category of framing styles typically characterized by the use of large solid wood panels for wall, floor and roof construction in place of steel or concrete. One of these is cross-laminated timber.

Cross-laminated timber manufacturing and use in multistory buildings and other structures is well-established and fast-growing in Europe but is in its infancy in the U.S. The potential markets for cross-laminated timber in the U.S. are enormous if architects, builders, contractors, engineers and building owners accept the product as a substitute for steel and concrete construction. The South has ample Southern yellow pine resources to meet the potential market for cross-laminated timber.

Dynamics of cross-laminated timber

A study was conducted in the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019 to better understand the dynamics of cross-laminated timber perceptions, awareness and potential for adoption from softwood lumber mills in the South. Because softwood lumber is the main feedstock for cross-laminated timber, it is essential to understand the supply side. A paper survey was developed with input from key partners versed in the sawmill sector. The survey was mailed to a random sample of softwood sawmills in the South to assess the market knowledge of cross-laminated timber and its potential in the South. The survey was sent to 412 sawmills. After accounting for firms that had gone out of business, incomplete surveys and nonresponses, the adjusted response rate was 18% with 51 useable responses.

Survey results

The highest response rates were 18% in Alabama, 16% in North Carolina and 14% in Mississippi. Least represented were Tennessee at 6%, Florida at 4% and Louisiana at 4% of respondents. Most of the sawmills were moderately sized in terms of employment, with 56% employing 20-250 people, while 6% employed more than 500 and 20% had fewer than 10 employees. Because cross-laminated timber is a possible new sales channel for softwood lumber producers, the survey looked at current customer bases to see where market shifts might occur. With multiple responses possible, 35% of respondents sell to wholesalers, followed by preservative treating companies, remanufacturer and export at 18% each, stocking distributors at 12% and nonresidential builders at 9%.

While the cross-laminated timber market is poised for substantial growth, survey results indicated that respondents were generally unfamiliar with the product. Forty-one percent said they were not at all familiar with the product, while 41% were somewhat familiar and 18% were very familiar. The recent establishment of a cross-laminated timber manufacturer within the region seems to be slow in gaining the attention of Southern sawmills because 53% of respondents reported they knew nothing about the cross-laminated timber manufacturers in the U.S.; only 2% were very familiar.

While the lack in familiarity may be a concern for cross-laminated timber manufacturers hoping to locate in the South, 36% of respondents said they were somewhat or very likely to sell lumber to a cross-laminated timber manufacturer operating in the region, while 8% of respondents have already sold lumber to a cross-laminated timber manufacturer. Seventy-seven percent of respondents would not require long-term contracts with cross-laminated timber manufacturers, but 65% said they would accept them. The capability of Southern sawmills to produce cross-laminated timber-grade lumber is not an issue. Generally, respondents reported they could meet cross-laminated timber lumber specifications, with 65% indicating they could dry wood to a 10%-12% moisture content; however, 48% are able to sort and provide higher-density wood specifically for the cross-laminated timber market.

Drying to cross-laminated timber requirements and sorting by density requires a premium for many of the respondents. For drying alone, 85% of respondents would charge a premium. Of the 26 of respondents that indicated a willingness to charge, the premiums ranged from 1%-5% (4% of respondents) to more than 20% (15% of respondents).

Many opportunities exist for educating participants in the cross-laminated timber supply chain as well as influencers such as architects and builders. Although this study established a general unfamiliarity of cross-laminated timber products and manufacturers by Southern softwood sawmills, softwood lumber manufacturers indicated interest in increasing their knowledge and expanding the industry. More than 50% would like to make contacts with builders that use cross-laminated timber, and nearly a third want to learn the technical specifications for cross-laminated timber and the feedstock they could provide.

The future holds promise

Many respondents expressed a desire to learn more about and potentially enter the cross-laminated timber sector. They also expressed a positive outlook regarding cross-laminated timber use by builders in the next year (2020). Fully 58% of respondents believed that cross-laminated timber use by builders will increase somewhat or significantly in 2020. Only 6% thought the market for builders will decline.

Although the center of cross-laminated timber production has been in the Pacific Northwest, manufacturers are now focusing more attention on supplying the eastern U.S. market. Production is coming on line in the South. Cross-laminated timber production using Southern yellow pine will continue to grow significantly over the next five years. Early adopters will enjoy a competitive advantage as markets and acceptance by influencers and specifiers such as architects and builders continue to grow. In addition, building codes that accept cross-laminated timber have been developed in many states, cities and municipalities, which will foster cross-laminated timber adoption.

Richard Vlosky is director of the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center and is Crosby Land & Resources Endowed Professor of Forest Sector Business Development in the School of Renewable Natural Resources. Mason T. LeBlanc is a procurement analyst with Drax Biomass, LLC, Monroe, Louisiana.

(This article appears in the summer 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

A drawing of three layers of boards perpendicular to each other.

Cross-laminated lumber is a prefabricated, solid wood panel used in residential and industrial construction. It consists of several layers of boards arranged in alternating directions and then bonded together with industrial adhesives and pressed together to form a solid, straight rectangular panel. Applications include long spans in walls, floors and roofs.

A side view of cross-laminated timber shows three layers of wood.

A side view of cross-laminated timber shows three board glued together to make a laminate. Each layer is perpendicular to the layer below, forming the cross-laminated material. Photo by Rich Vlosky

Inside a building under construction in which cross-laminated timber panels are used instead of concrete panels.

Cross-laminated timber panels can be used in place of concrete panels in building construction. Photo by Rich Vlosky

A view of a ceiling in which cross-laminated timber has been used instead of steel I-beams.

Cross-laminated timber can replace steel I-beams in building construction. Photo by Rich Vlosky

A section of cross-laminated timber alongside screws and metal plates.

Wood screws and metal plates are used to fasten together smaller pieces of cross-laminated timber. Photo by Rich Vlosky

7/29/2020 8:32:57 PM
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