CLICK to download a pdf of this article
High hopes for wood in high rises
B.C.’s Structurlam Products is expanding its presence in the Cross-Laminated Timber market, with new equipment that will help it to better service, and grow, the CLT market into areas such
as wooden high rise buildings.
By Paul MacDonald
In the small town of Okanagan Falls, across the road from one of the vineyards that dot the wine country in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, lies part of the future of engineered wood—and perhaps the seeds for wooden high rise buildings in Canada.
That’s where Structurlam Products LP, long a player in the glu-lam market, is working away at producing Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) and developing the market for this unique product.
The most recent development for Structurlam came last year, when the company completed an expansion, and installed a $1.5 million Hundegger panel-cutting robot, a computer-controlled machine that cuts and drills CLT panels.
The building housing the new machine showcases the products made inside. It is a 10,000 square foot glu-lam and CLT structure. The roof is covered with 5-ply CrossLam (Structurlam’s trademarked name for its CLT panels) which span between the arches without the use of intermediate beams. The walls are 3-ply CrossLam.
Bill Downing, president of Structurlam, is excited about Cross-Laminated Timber and its potential: “It’s nice to be part of it. How often does a game changer come around in the wood products industry?”
Structurlam’s CLT is an engineered wood product produced in large panels up to 12 metres long, 3 metres wide and 350 mm thick. The panels consist of three to nine layers of finger jointed wood (usually 2 X 6) with each layer alternating 90 degrees.
Polyeurothane glue is applied between each layer and the panel is then pressed for about 90 minutes. After pressing, the panel is run through a massive four-sided planer custom built for Structurlam in Germany. After planing, the panels move to the new Hundegger CNC machine, and manufactured into a specific building element for use in roof, floor or wall construction.
Developed in Switzerland in the 1990s, CLT has a number of features, but one of its main attributes is that while the panels are comparable in strength to concrete, they are up to six times lighter. This means that the foundation of a building that uses CLT panels does not to have to be as extensive as it would be with a concrete building, and pre-loading of the soils may not be required. Since the panels are all pre-fabbed, site waste is almost zero.
Structurlam is one of only two producers of CLT in Canada.
As a company, Structurlam has been around for more than 50 years. It was founded by two brothers, Al and Doug Kenyon, of Kenyon Construction, and was eventually passed on through to other family members. In 2007, Vancouver property development company Adera Development bought the company.
Bill Downing is president of Structurlam, and says he got involved with the company because he wanted to move on to a hands-on manufacturing position, after heading up BC Wood Specialties, a not-for-profit industry association of secondary wood product manufacturers in B.C. At the time, Structurlam was only producing glu-lam products.
“The first time I saw CLT was at the annual wood design conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany,” recalls Downing. That was just the start of the company’s interest. They went on to do two years of research to see if there would actually be a market for CLT in North America.
“There was a lot of work with designers to see if they would be interested in such a product,” Downing explained. “It’s a big jump to invest in a brand new building product, and it’s never easy, especially in the conservative construction industry.”
They decided to move ahead, and started designing the plant, and acquiring equipment, most of it from Europe, which has a well-established CLT market. In June 2011, they opened the plant, with the support from Natural Resources Canada, under the Transformative Technologies Pilot Scale Demonstration Program.
“We were lucky in that there was a joint program between NRCan and B.C.’s Forest Innovation Investment for demonstration projects, so we had some buildings to put CLT into,” said Downing.
Structurlam’s CLT is an engineered wood product produced in large panels up to 12 metres long, 3 metres wide and 350 mm thick. The panels consist of three to nine layers of finger jointed wood (usually 2 x 6) with each layer alternating 90 degrees.
They have worked on a number of projects over the last two years, and seen signs of a promising market. But they are expanding their market further with the latest investment in the panel cutting equipment.
“We quickly realized that if you are using CLT for a floor or ceiling, that’s pretty straight-forward—it’s usually a simple rectangular panel with minimal machining. Walls are a whole different story, with door openings, window openings, and you might have a bevel along the top and a complex connection system along the bottom—difficult work with a panel that is 10 feet by 40 feet long, and nine layers of wood thick.”
Extreme accuracy is essential is doing this kind of work, says Downing. That’s where the new machine comes in: it will cut, drill and notch massive CLT panels within a millimetre in accuracy. “We decided go ahead with the second investment, with the addition and the CNC panel cutting robot,” said Downing. Structurlam already had the expertise through their use of CNC equipment for glu-lam at the company’s other plant, in Penticton. “So it was quite easy to take that technology and expertise and apply the same thing to CLT panels.”
Another advantage is Structurlam’s direct linkage between their 3D modeling software for building design and their CNC machines.
The recent expansion will allow Structurlam to further commercialize their CLT panels through the development of the ‘EcoStructure Wall System’. The EcoStructure wall is a completely assembled, solid wood wall panel that is designed to compete with concrete ‘tilt-up’ walls in commercial construction. It combines CLT technology, high performance insulation and a natural cedar rain barrier.
“Imagine a wooden wall panel that is lighter, stronger, and better insulated than a comparable concrete wall. The EcoStructure Wall System is the next step in marrying sustainability, aesthetics and performance in a ready-to-install, cost-effective commercial wall,” says Downing.
Moves such as the recent expansion illustrate that Structurlam has been an innovator and early adopter in CLT technology from the start, says Downing.
“From day one, we have had a strong connection with the European equipment companies, and a strong connection with Equilibrium Consulting, out of Vancouver. With Equilibrium, we’ve been able to link with the timber engineering side.”
For glu-lam product, which is still the mainstay of the company at this point, they get their supply of wood stock from B.C.’s Kalesnikoff Lumber Company. They use primarily high grade interior wet-belt Douglas fir from Kalesnikoff. “The best lamstock in the world” says Downing.
For the CLT raw material, they use #2 and better, 2x6. “Our suppliers sort it by moisture content—it has to be less than 14 per cent, which is a bit less than the 17 to 18 per cent you might see in the lumber at Home Depot. Other than that, it’s a commodity product sourced from a number of BC interior mills.”
They use a lot of mountain pine beetle affected lumber, and are considering using other under-utilized softwood species.
The most recent major equipment addition for Structurlam came last year when the company completed an expansion and installed a $1.5 million Hundegger panel-cutting robot, a computer-controlled machine that cuts and drills CLT panels
The move into producing CLT walls has been a natural evolution for the company, Downing says. It now allows them to produce complete project packages. “Between the CLT and glu-lam that we are supplying on some projects, we’re supplying the whole structural shell.”
One of the big selling points for CLT is its speed of installation, says Downing. “That’s what is winning people over,” he says. “Because the panels are coming off the extremely accurate CNC machine, they are perfect—all the framing is done at our factory. They can literally come off the truck and be installed.”
Recent projects included several motel projects in Alberta. “Why did they pick it? Well, going with CLT allowed them to open those motels three months earlier. It’s really about contracting the construction schedule for customers.”
And CLT is viewed favourably by the engineering and design community. “Architects are very keen on building ‘green’—and replacing concrete with wood is very attractive to them.”
As Downing noted, Structurlam has benefited from being involved in a number of demonstration projects, usually government projects. But they have also quickly moved into the private sector. They had their first sale into China earlier this year, and have made several shipments into the U.S.
“It’s making the jump from the public to the private sector that gets me really excited,” said Downing. “That means developers are reaching into their own pockets to support the product.”
The biggest profile project to date for the company is B.C.’s soon-to-be tallest wood building, the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George. Structurlam will be providing beams, and wall and floor panels.
Site work began this past spring for the $25-million, six-storey building that’s meant to showcase B.C.’s cutting-edge wood construction and design techniques.
Steve Thomson, B.C.’s Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, personally visited Structurlam’s Okanagan Falls plant this past summer to make the announcement.
“A lot of people are going to be watching that project to see how it goes,” said Downing. “I think they are going to be shocked at how fast the building is going to go up.”
Downing says that in addition to office-type buildings such as the Prince George project, he sees potential in the residential market, as well.
“But it’s like any new product: you have to find an early adopter who’s willing to take a little bit more risk. You have to find the right combination of owner, architects, and engineers willing to do something different.”
But they have their sights set firmly on replacing concrete in projects. “I never think about CLT as being a replacement for wood frame construction. We don’t want to cannibalize a market that is already in wood—we want to convert projects that would be concrete, into wood.”
The future looks promising for Structurlam and the CLT market, says Downing. “What’s really encouraging for me is seeing the U.S. market come back. I see that being a big opportunity for us. North America is going to be the focus, but we see interest in CLT all over the world.”
The company is particularly grateful for the government support it has received, from financial through to the support via demonstration projects, and the B.C government’s Wood First initiative. FPInnovations has also put together a CLT handbook, and held the first U.S. CLT symposium in Seattle last year.
One cloud on the horizon could be lumber prices. “There are labour costs and some gluing costs, but the vast majority of our cost is the fibre. So when we see lumber spike like it did last year, we get nervous," says Downing.
To deal with this, they now arrange with lumber suppliers to hold the price until the job is done. “So we lock in the numbers,” says Downing. “We do that with the steel we use, as well. We use a lot of steel in the wood-to-wood connections in the packages we put together.”
That said, more high rise buildings using CLT could be on the horizon in Canada. British Columbia has allowed wood structures as high as six storeys in residential construction since 2009. And Vancouver has reviewed a proposal for doing a 16 to 20 storey wood building.
Melbourne, Australia currently has the world’s tallest wood building, at 10 storeys.
And with new Canadian building code standards expected in 2015 for offices and residences, the move to tall wood buildings could get a welcome push.
And Downing is excited that Structurlam is part of the action. “It’s nice to be part of it. How often does a game changer come around in the wood products industry?”