By Diane Mettler
It seems like every time you turn around, another wood products mill has closed. That’s exactly why it’s so exciting to see a facility open — and a very large one at that.
Biggest Mill in North America
In September, building components manufacturer Katerra opened North America’s highest volume cross-laminated timber (CLT) factory in Spokane Valley, Washington. The 270,000-square-foot facility is strategically located on a 52-acre site with easy access to rail lines and interstate highways.
At full operation, the factory will employ 105 people with an annual manufacturing capacity of 185,000 cubic meters, the equivalent of 13 million square feet of 5-ply panels, and it can produce up to 140 boards per minute. To put this in perspective, it will be able to produce enough material for fifty 250,000 square-foot commercial office buildings per year.
The plant was constructed by primarily local talent — the general contractor was Lydig Construction of Spokane, Washington; McKinstry Company of Spokane handled the mechanicals and HVAC; Evergreen Engineering of Eugene, Oregon, was responsible for engineering; ARC Electric and Lighting of Spokane installed the electrical; and Casey Industrial of Westminster, Colorado, took on the industrial equipment installation.
Katerra’s state-of-the-art CLT facility reflects the company’s technology-first approach, incorporating advanced geometric and biometric scanning of lamstock, an on-site kiln for precise moisture control, and artificial intelligence to further improve safety and reduce waste. The result is a consistent, high-quality product.
Katerra’s factory also features the largest CLT press currently in operation globally, offering customers what it says is unmatched design flexibility.
“The press is 12 feet wide, so we can press a 12-foot by 60-foot long panel. We do three-ply, five-ply, seven-ply, and nine-ply,” says Plant General Manager Jason Herman, who was involved with the first CLT plant in the U.S., SmartLam in Columbia Falls, Montana. Herman also assisted Vaagen Timbers on building their CLT mill in Colville, Washington.
Hermann adds that the company is currently commissioning a sorting line as well as a chipper system, and things are going well.
“I think the industry is going to do very well,” says Herman. “The Europeans have been manufacturing CLT for 30-plus years. The United States started doing mass timber in about 2012, and demand is continually increasing.”
One of the things that makes Katerra unique is that it offers end-to-end new build services. It provides design, manufacturing, and construction services to deliver a building project from beginning to end. For CLT, Katerra offers a range of services from material supply and related hardware and materials to install and end-to-end building services.
Although the Katerra plant is still in its startup phase, it has already finished producing product for its first project — the Catalyst Building in Spokane — a dramatic five-story, 150,000-square-foot building that will feature two wings around a light-filled atrium. Katerra is also the general contractor on the project. Expected to open in 2020, it will be the first office building in Washington constructed out of CLT. And the company is well into its third and fourth projects.
As mentioned, Katerra selected the Spokane Valley in which to build their factory in part for the ease of accessibility for product delivery. But the area is also perfect for its access to raw material resources.
Raw material in the form of dimensional lumber is currently coming from Canada, but the company is looking at expanding its raw material supply to locations within the U.S.
“What we have to do is get certified for different species in the U.S.,” says Herman. “We’re currently working on that, and then we will use some fir and larch in the future. Until that time, we are using small diameter two-by-six spruce, pine, and fir from Canada.”
Katerra sources 100 percent of their lamstock from well-managed forests, a basic Katerra requirement. All lamstock sourced from Canada is SFI or PEFC certified at a minimum, and it can source FSC-certified wood as desired by its customers.
“We now have a pipeline,” Herman says. “We’re good through about 2020.”
The facility’s equipment was globally sourced and selected based on a production model. The company determined what it wanted to produce on a daily basis, and based on that, purchased equipment offering production timing that would meet their goals.
The system is fully automated. Herman says if the wood is good and dry, it can pass through the CLT process in two-and-a-half hours.
The process is fairly straightforward. The raw material first passes through a sorting line purchased from USNR in Woodland, Washington. The moisture sensors, supplied by Finna Group of Denver, Colorado, determine which material is dry enough for processing. If the wood is dry enough, it is sent through the CLT production line. If not, it goes into a USNR kiln.
The CLT line has three planers, all manufactured by Gilbert in Roberval, Quebec.
“The wood goes through the first set of planers and gets to near-net-size there,” explains Herman. “Then, on planers two and three, it gets to net-size. Once it travels through the finger jointer, the product makes a continuous ribbon of lumber up to 60 feet, so we can do our layups in our press.”
From the CLT press, the product travels to one of three CNC machines. Two of the CNC machines were purchased from Uniteam (Biesse), of Thiene, Italy. The third came from Germany’s Hundegger AG.
Herman says after the CNC work is complete, the material travels on to the sander, which they sourced from Costa in Archdale, North Carolina. “From the sander, it continues on to the crane we purchased from Galifco Oregon, out of Eugene. The crane offloads the finished CLT panel and prepares it for Quality Assurance/Quality Control certification. Once the panel is certified, we load it on the truck and send it to the job site,” explains Herman.
Katerra CLT is tested for its intended use in compliance with the 2018 International Building Code (IBC) and all relevant reference standards including ANSI/APA PRG 320 (2018) for ready use in the U.S. Complete certification for use in Canada was anticipated for late 2019.
The company intends to pursue third-party voluntary environmental certification of Katerra CLT to authenticate transparency in its materials and manufacturing process, as well as quantify the embodied environmental impacts of Katerra CLT. This process will begin once the factory has been in operation for at least 12 months.
The environmental label certification Katerra will apply for is a product- and process-specific Type III Environmental Product Declaration to ISO 14025 Environmental labels and declarations; Type III Environmental Declarations Principles and Procedures (EPD).
Excitement for the Future
After so many months of researching, designing, purchasing, contracting, and organizing all the details, Herman says it has been exciting to watch the plant break ground, followed by equipment installation and, finally, the commissioning in May.
“During the commissioning time, we had some training,” he says. “There were five of us who went to Europe for about 10 days, and we did some training with some other CLT plants. It was really amazing to see other manufacturers produce their CLT.”
When the company is fully staffed, it will employ a wide variety of people from different industries.
“Our hiring interview process is very effective, and we interview as a management group,” says Herman. “We’ve had very minimal turnover. That is because we treat our people like assets, as they are the assets. We run a sturdy ship here.”
Herman is excited about the future of the CLT industry and is thankful for having a great team.
Herman is not the only one excited about the new CLT plant. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz were all in attendance at the grand opening of the facility and enthusiastic about what it meant to the state and the industry.
“We are so excited to see Katerra’s investment and innovation come to our state, which could not have happened at a better time,” Franz said. “Mass timber complements the Department of Natural Resources’ forest health work in central and eastern Washington, which will produce byproducts like small diameter trees that can be used to make CLT and create jobs in rural, timber-dependent communities.”
“We have a young generation that is demanding to be saved from climate change and a somewhat older generation who is using their technological prowess, their entrepreneurial zeal, and the incredible skillset that we have in working people in Washington State to give them not only solutions to climate change, but jobs for the future,” said Inslee.
Cantwell added: “Cross-laminated timber is a triple-win that can deliver low-carbon building materials, promote forest health, and create new timber community jobs.”
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