By Paul MacDonald
Mass Timber Products are one of the most in-demand construction materials these days, and a B.C. company is now on the cutting edge in this market, taking Mass Timber Products even further with a new engineered wood product manufacturing facility—turning out a new product—in the Fraser Valley, near Vancouver.
Replacing traditional structural systems such as concrete and steel, prefabricated solid wood panels such as Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) are very successful at creating a construction method which is clean and sustainable—and very, very fast.
But StructureCraft Builders Inc recently opened a new 50,000 square foot production facility in Abbotsford, B.C., which is now turning out a new product to North America: Dowel Laminated Timber (DLT), with panels that can be used for floor, wall and roof structures.
The company’s new plant—constructed of a variety of mass timber and engineered wood products—is the first mill in North America to develop and automate the production of DLT for green construction purposes. Illustrating the speed of timber construction, the manufacturing building superstructure was completed in just five days.
While there is a fair bit of equipment in the plant—mostly European-manufactured—the production process for DLT is relatively simple: laminations of pre-milled finger-jointed dimensional lumber are friction-fit to each other, on edge, using a series of ¾” hardwood dowels, that are hydraulically pressed into pre-drilled holes.
The lumber used as raw material at StructureCraft is generally undervalued SPF, and includes pine beetle-affected wood from B.C. However, the process lends itself to virtually any softwood, like Douglas fir, Hem Fir or Cedar.
The plant creates a high quality wood product without nails or glue, as is required in Nail Laminated Timber (NLT) and CLT. The new plant will produce more than half a million square feet of product annually, on one shift. And in terms of input and output, any board width can be used, not just 2 x material. Boards of 3 x, 4 or even 6 x material can be processed through the company’s finger jointer, moulder and DLT machine.
In addition to being the first DLT plant in North America, StructureCraft is able to produce the largest DLT panels in the world, with lengths of 60 feet, vs. lengths of 40 feet in Europe.
“It makes sense to have that because the trucks and roads allow longer loads here,” says Gerald Epp Jr., estimating engineer with StructureCraft.
It also makes sense that their equipment is sourced from Europe, since the market for DLT is well established there, where there are upwards of 15 DLT manufacturing plants.
DLT offers a number of benefits, including being more cost effective since the system uses less material than competing methods, and the replacement of concrete and steel with DLT offers high carbon sequestration potential. But perhaps its biggest benefit is the speed with which it can be erected, vs. conventional construction. And regardless of the project, whether it is a hotel, condominiums or an office, time is money, to developers and builders.
For those involved with the industry, StructureCraft Builders may be a familiar name. The company has 20 years of experience in design, fabrication and construction and working with architects to build complex timber structures.
It was founded by Gerald Epp, President of StructureCraft, who feels the time has clearly come for DLT.
“This kind of innovative manufacturing using large quantities of Canadian forest products will help fuel the rapidly growing demand for advanced green building products that is revolutionizing the construction industry in North America,” he said.
Gerald Epp Jr., his son, sees a big market niche for DLT. “It’s a huge opportunity—I think we are going to be very busy with this new equipment.”
Prior to building the new facility, StructureCraft had a smaller production plant in Delta, B.C. where they produced NLT and other engineered wood products. “We were kind of crammed in there, but it did the job for us for quite a few years,” says Epp. “But the dream was always to build our own timber building. It suits us so much better.” Both the building, and the DLT equipment it contains, were custom designed for the company.
He noted that StructureCraft has had a tradition of being involved in complex, one-off timber design projects. “But those projects usually come in spurts. And we wanted to have something that will give us a baseline of work—and invest in machinery and have a product line that provides us with much more consistent business.”
And the business they chose was Dowel Laminated Timber.
“We could have invested in a CLT plant, but one of the main reasons we opted for DLT is that no one is producing DLT in North America right now,” says Epp. “We see DLT as having a number of distinct advantages, including structural efficiency and aesthetics.”
Another advantage of DLT is that they can produce it quickly—unlike CLT, there is almost no glue involved in producing DLT, so there is no glue or press curing time. The fully automated loading and pressing process means a panel can be manufactured as quickly as every five to 10 minutes, at the Abbotsford plant.
The only glue in DLT is in the finger jointed wood that goes into the DLT. “The end product is 99.99 percent wood,” says Epp. “There is only a bit of glue—one-half of one per cent of what CLT uses—in DLT, so that is a pretty big advantage for people looking for an all-wood product.”
This gets the product big points on Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects. It also gets points, of course, for wood being a natural product, vs. steel or concrete.
Epp added that the new plant features a lot of new technology, and they worked with their suppliers to drive up the speed of the production process. The custom-designed DLT machine was a year in research and development, and is said to be the largest and fastest in the world.
This is important because they see DLT as the next evolution, in a number of ways, from CLT and NLT, in Mass Timber Products—with a fast growing market.
With the new equipment set-up and DLT, they are also able to produce a finer product finish.
“For a hotel project we are doing, for example, we are able to offer a much finer finish now with DLT because we are doing four-sided moulding. And on the construction side, we can also put it in much faster since it is a panelized system—and the finish is built into the panel, so there is no need for drywall.” And, he adds, there are a number of surface profiles available.
Essentially, StructureCraft is dealing with marketing DLT to architects, and they stress its structural efficiency, and speed of construction. “Cost-wise, a Mass Timber type project might be more expensive, but you have faster construction, quieter construction, cleaner construction—and that finished product,” says Epp. Mass Timber structures are also 30 per cent lighter than their steel equivalent, and 60 per cent lighter than equivalent post-tensioned concrete building, meaning they can have smaller foundations, and lower seismic loads.
At a time when some regions in the U.S. are experiencing shortages of skilled construction labour, DLT and other Mass Timber products also offer the advantage of requiring fewer construction workers.
“There are fewer people required, and all that the people on the site are doing is screwing panels together, making mechanical connections,” says Epp.
There are definitely some architects who are leading the move to using Mass Timber Panels, such as DLT—Michael Green of Vancouver is one. Green has spoken many times about the advantages of building with wood products, and was involved with a high profile Mass Timber project in the U.S., as was StructureCraft (see sidebar story).
In addition to the hotel project, StructureCraft is producing and installing DLT panels for a museum project in Texas, an airport expansion project in Smithers, B.C. and a roof over a pool in Aldergrove, B.C.
The company figures that, eventually, 70 to 80 per cent of their DLT sales will be to the U.S. “The market is so much bigger down there,” explains Epp.
Being an engineered wood product, they are able to steer clear of the softwood lumber duties. Right now, their sales are split evenly between Canada and the U.S.
Epp noted that in Canada and in B.C. particularly, contractors are used to working with CLT and glu-lam products, so the knowledge and acceptance level of Mass Timber Products is reasonably high.
“It’s less so in the U.S., where the product is still pretty new,” he says. “But with our production and design staff, we think that we can add a lot of value to people who are not that familiar with using wood.” The company has 10 experienced timber engineers on staff to capably handle just about any type of building, from residential through to large office buildings.
They are able to offer turnkey service, doing design, supply and delivery of the DLT panels. “We can take it right through to providing our own crews, to install the panels, on any site in North America.” Customers, of course, are able to order DLT panels for a project, and arrange for the construction themselves, too.
Though they will end up shipping a lot of product south, staying in B.C. makes a lot of sense, says Epp. He says they appreciate and benefit from the infrastructure the wood industry has in B.C.
Through the federal government, the company received a $1.9 million investment from the Investments in Forest Industry Transformation (IFIT) program. It offers non-repayable contributions to Canadian forestry businesses to implement innovative, first-in-kind technologies in their facilities. The goal of the program is to provide funding for projects at the pilot to commercialization phase, with the intent of helping these technologies get to market.
Even though they are not subject to duties on shipping DLT to the U.S., there has been an impact on StructureCraft’s costs, due to the increase in lumber prices with the softwood dispute.
The tariff has the effect of driving up global prices for all wood products, whether it is dimensional lumber or DLT, says Epp.
“It’s not good for the wood manufacturing industry and companies like ourselves, but we have not seen it slowing down peoples’ interest in DLT. At the end of the day, the raw material is only a certain percentage of the total overall production cost. It’s hard to predict, but we see lumber prices leveling off, because they are so high right now.”
They currently source their lumber through brokers, but they might look at having a direct relationship with sawmills or forest companies, if there are benefits to that approach. Generally, they use #2 and better SPF, but sometimes they use different species, such as Douglas Fir or Alaskan Yellow Cedar.
“It might help, dealing directly with a mill, but we’ll see how it goes,” says Epp.
For now, they are focused on tweaking their equipment, so they can meet what they expect will be a very healthy order sheet.
“All the CLT manufacturers are solidly booked right now—and we expect we will be, too, soon,” says Epp. “We see a lot of potential with DLT, and we think the next year is going to be very busy.
“As with any new equipment, the challenge is going to be in fine tuning it, and that is going to be our push over the next few months.”
The largest modern Mass Timber building (to date) in the U.S. was completed in 2016—and StructureCraft Builders Inc crews were able to install the 180,000 square foot timber superstructure in only 9.5 weeks, reflecting the speed with which they are able to complete projects, with this building material.
With the successful launch of the building, dubbed T3 Minneapolis (Timber, Technology, Transportation), the project reinforced the trend of tall wood construction in North America reaching new heights. Internet retailing giant Amazon is the first major tenant in the building. It was designed by Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture. Company principal Michael Green has been a big proponent of the use of wood in building construction.
While StructureCraft recently opened its new Dowel Laminated Timber (DLT) plant in Abbotsford, B.C., the company used Nail Laminated (NLT) Timber on the Minneapolis project.
Approximately 3,600 cubic metres of SPF wood were used in the seven storey structure, which will sequester about 3,200 tonnes of carbon for the life of the building. That was an important consideration, since the building is LEED Gold Certified.
Timber was erected at a speed exceeding conventional steel-framed or concrete buildings—a floor was completed at an average of every nine days.
Over 1,100 8’ x 20’ NLT panels were used in the project—the equivalent square footage of nine hockey rinks. The majority of the NLT was made of lumber from trees killed by the mountain pine beetle in B.C.
It was, says Gerald Epp Jr., estimating engineer with StructureCraft, a terrific project to be involved with.
“As engineers, our love for pushing the edge in timber construction led us to create new connection ideas, erection methodologies, and carry out full scale testing for this project, in pursuit of creating the most efficient structure possible,” said Epp. “We have a vision for perfecting this new system of building with wood and are eager for new opportunities to apply our ideas.”
On the Cover:
B.C. Interior logging company Wadlegger Logging and Construction Ltd. are deploying their leveling feller bunchers and the Tractionline winch-assist system to help their logging equipment work efficiently and safely up and down steep slopes. (Photo by Anthony Robinson)
New biofuel investment for Newfoundland
British-Based AEG is targeting Newfoundland for its first Canadian investment in its biofuel technology—and it is looking to re-start a business plan involving forestlands in Alberta.
Top Lumber Producers—Who's on Top?
Logging and Sawmilling Journal’s exclusive annual listing of Canada’s Top Lumber Producers, produced in co-operation with industry consultants, International WOOD MARKETS Group.
An outstanding logger...
The Canadian Woodlands Forum’s Atlantic Outstanding Logging Contractor Award has gone to veteran logging contractor Dana Day, who has been involved in forestry for more than 50 years.
Move over CLT—make room for DLT (Dowel Laminated Timber)
Mass Timber Products are a hot item these days, and B.C. is now home to a multi-million dollar production facility that is turning out a fairly new product to North America: Dowel Laminated Timber (DLT).
BC Saw Filers Convention coming up
Logging and Sawmilling Journal previews the upcoming BC Saw Filers Convention, to be held in Kamloops, B.C. April 26-28, which promises to be a great exhibition of all the latest in technology, products and services in saw filing.
Getting traction in the B.C. Interior
A Tractionline winch-assist system is meeting the multiple needs of B.C. Interior logging operation, Wadlegger Logging and Construction Ltd., including on steep slopes and tough ground conditions.
Going the distance...
Building logging road and bridges on the tough B.C. Coast requires equipment that can go the distance—and then some—and Powell River contractor Bob Marquis has found the right equipment that can take on some pretty punishing ground.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates, Alberta Agriculture and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
The traditional lands decision from the Supreme Court of Canada is resulting in more dialogue and accommodation, says Tony Kryzanowski.