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We need to use more wood in our own backyard

By Tony Kryzanowski

For the past six months, I’ve been driving past a hotel expansion project here in booming Alberta that, quite frankly, has really gotten under my skin. As I wait for the traffic light to change, I sit there fuming at the sight of a new wing that’s been framed with steel beams, concrete floors, and a metal roof. “Why wasn’t more wood used in this expansion project?” I am left wondering. Furthermore, why didn’t the building designer specify a panelized wood assembly approach, which probably would have meant that the building could have been erected in a fraction of the time and the electrical and mechanical trades would have had a nice cozy environment to work in?                                   

But there it stood, with nothing but plastic tarps protecting the workers—and that was for six months, I swear, because of how hard it is to find trades to complete construction projects in Alberta at the present time.                                   

It was like an advertisement for the steel and concrete building industry. While it probably meant very little to other motorists, except to reinforce the apparent prevailing view that nonresidential construction is best managed with steel and concrete, I had the unfortunate pleasure of knowing better. Current ballpark estimates state that if building contractors in the United States actually used wood where it was allowed by building codes in non-residential construction, this would represent additional wood consumption of at least three billion board feet of lumber and three billion square feet of wood panels.                                   

At the same time, I hear the moaning and groaning from lumber and panel producers about how tough the market is as a result of the slump in the US residential housing market, the high value of the Canadian dollar and the glut of wood production because of the mountain pine beetle epidemic.                                   

This unchallenged trend of nonresidential building with concrete and steel has gone on long enough, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s not only because a lot of my daily bread comes from writing about the forest industry. I’m also a bit of a closet environmentalist.                                   

It’s been well documented that when using Life Cycle Assessment tools to investigate the environmental footprint of different building products in the same or similar buildings, use of renewable building products such as wood wins out every time. So using wood in nonres applications is not only good for the industry—it is also good for the environment.                 

However, the task of achieving more wood use in non-res construction doesn’t start with convincing more building designers to consider using more wood. Well, it does—in a way. The first hurdle to overcome is within the Canadian forest products manufacturing industry itself. We don’t build our facilities with wood, therefore, how can we convince other industries to build with it?                                   

I’ve seen sawmills made from wood. At first, I didn’t recognize the significance of it, but then it hit me. There I was, gathering field research while on a trip to Sweden, walking along a fairly advanced log breakdown line, and the floor was made from wood. Then I noticed that the walls were covered with wood paneling and the ceiling had wooden roof trusses. The entire building was protected with a sprinkler fire suppression system. I found myself asking: “Why is the Canadian wood industry building its sawmills and panelboard plants from concrete and steel when they are in the wood business?” With the current trend among governments to spend more money on “transformative” research and development as it relates to the forest industry, I believe it would be interesting to design two complete sawmill facilities: one using wood wherever possible and allowed by the Building Code, and another primarily of steel and concrete.                                   

Given advances in computer technology, this could all be simulated. I am not so naïve as to think that the industry and building specifiers are prepared to turn 180 degrees overnight. Why not develop a hybrid design that includes a variety of building material elements, and conduct a comparison of different building construction approaches, such as onsite erection versus panelized erection? This information could then be shared with builders. Forest companies are beginning to understand the value of using wood biomass to produce heat and power. Imagine how much cheaper a forest company could build its own facilities if it used its own wood, high load bearing laminated veneer lumber beams, and panelboards.                                   

Loggers should also seriously consider building their offices and shops with as much wood as possible. In all my travels, I have only seen one company dedicated to using wood in its buildings, and that was the Halland sawmill in Love, Saskatchewan.                                   

Once our own industry buys in to the value of using wood in non-res construction, I believe it will be much easier to sell the concept to other industries.                                   

Frankly, steel is too valuable a commodity to be used so much in building construction. Because of its inherent properties and because it is a non-renewable resource, society would gain much more benefit if it were used in specific applications where it has no substitute, like space shuttles, particle accelerators, and computer components. So as an industry, let’s start walking the talk about more wood use in non-res construction and let’s start right now with some serious investment in research and development in the construction of our own wood facilities.