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The U.S. mass timber industry is maturing while it branches out
This article originally appeared as part of our January 2019 print issue in the timber feature.
President Donald Trump’s tariffs, enacted in November 2017, have not yet made a significant impact on the U.S. mass timber industry. But if Trump chooses to take more aggressive action in the next two years of his administration, this could dramatically change. This urgency, coupled with the recent global obsession with building tall wood structures, newly motivates American wood manufacturers to become independent of foreign suppliers. This would entail American manufacturers catching up in machine technology and production capacity to bolster domestic trade and support innovative architecture sourced from home.
What’s clear is that U.S. demand for wood buildings is there. The country’s largest producer of cross-laminated timber (CLT), SmartLam, has experienced such rapid growth since opening six years ago that it is building a new headquarters in Columbia Falls, Montana, and planning a second facility in Maine to supply what the industry thinks will be an influx of midrise construction in New York and other cities along the Eastern seaboard.
“The expansion here is simply driven by need,” said SmartLam CEO Casey Malmquist. “There’s always been a grassroots support for CLT in the U.S. and a recently increased interest in research and testing. But now we’re no longer speculating about whether it will work—it’s going mainstream.”
While similar Pacific Northwest companies like DR Johnson and Katerra, as well as firms such as LEVER Architecture and Michael Green Architecture, have long led the field, production is growing in uncharted territories. South Carolina–based LignaTerra is adding another plant in Maine, while Canadian leaders like Nordic Structures in Montreal and Structure Fusion in Québec City, which already supplied CLT to projects across the country, are now focusing more attention on supplying the eastern U.S. market. Production is even swelling in the South with Texas CLT LLC, which is reopening a mill in southwest Arkansas.
But pioneering European companies, which have historically dominated the market and supplied American developers, are now putting down roots in the U.S. Austrian giant KLH is partnering with International Beams’ new factory in Dothan, Alabama, by supplying it with glulam blanks. Having opened this past September, it is the first plant east of the Rocky Mountains to produce CLT in the country and will primarily utilize the unique Southern Yellow Pine native to the region.
These investments show that the race to build such production facilities is vital to the U.S. market becoming competitive with other countries. But many experts say we need to increase cultural acceptance of mass timber as well as get investors on board before the industry starts churning up a sizable profit.
“The real strategy is that the big manufacturers in Europe are focused on making franchises here,” said Alan Organschi, principal of Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut. “They can produce higher quality products cheaper, even with overseas shipping, than manufacturers can in the U.S. and Canada.”
Organschi’s firm has been at the forefront of timber innovation for 20 years. He is confident the market is growing and will prove that by designing 6- to 14-story buildings, the sweet spot for mass timber construction. Dominique Briand, general manager of Canadian structural engineering firm Structure Fusion, is also optimistic about North America’s future, but feels certain that product-specific issues still need to be addressed before wood can match the quality of other structural materials like steel and concrete.
“The problem is the tools are not there,” Briand said. “There’s not enough manpower or knowledge to make or sell mass timber in the United States. Plus it’s a disorganized market, which creates a big gap between the product and the project.”
Briand believes that as long as timber is trendy, it will take young U.S.-based companies about five to ten more years to be competitive with Europe. In the meantime, architects, engineers, and educators are working to imagine groundbreaking designs at modest scales to ramp up domestic interest and encourage policy changes.
Many U.S. states are using financial incentives to entice manufacturers to locate to their respective regions. In Maine, both the state and federal governments have provided funding for the University of Maine’s extensive research to advance timber assemblies. Russell Edgar of the university’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center says the ultimate goal of this work is to organize the state’s supply chain in order to make Maine viable for these companies.
“People are talking a lot about South Carolina and Georgia since they grow trees like corn at such rapid rates,” he said. “But in Maine, we have proximity to these huge markets in New York and Boston, so we’re busy trying to find ways to get these companies here now.”
Sourcing timber products within 250 miles of a project is a huge advantage to practicing sustainability and boosting regional economies—not to mention a reason for rarely crossing borders for building materials. But a little competition is healthy, especially for lumber producers who want to bid in a fair marketplace.
“The more people there are, the better it will be,” said Briand. “I only worry that because we’re such a fast-evolving industry, a lot of companies will build huge facilities and focus solely on making and selling products. It’s not just about the products; it’s about creating strong business plans so the investment pays off.”