The growing market for mass timber

Mass timber has the potential to invigorate rural economies by creating commercial value for certain trees. Photo: freepik.com

In recent years, significant state legislation and building code changes have occurred related to cross-laminated timber (CLT) – also known as mass timber – a product that has the potential to invigorate rural economies by creating commercial value for certain trees.

One driver of its growing popularity are the advantages it provides builders, along with the environmental benefits favored by conservationists. However, it remains to be seen how closely the CLT industry ultimately matches that of a demand study conducted by Forterra, one of the state’s largest conservation organizations.

So far, the future looks bright. Katerra’s President of Architecture Craig Curtis told Lens there is “unbelievable interest in this new way of building. (I’ve) never seen anything like it in my career. Obviously, there’s huge momentum behind code changes that are in flight now, and it will happen.”

Composed of multiple sections of wood glued together, CLT attracted the interest of Forterra roughly four years ago, according to Vice President of Policy and Programming Skip Swenson.

“The interest that we had in it was the potential we saw for it to address multiple aspects of landscape that we care about,” he said. “If we could find a model where it can lead to lower constructions costs, it would allow us to house more people and more business more cheaply.”

In 2016, Swenson coauthored a CLT demand study conducted with the University of Washington, Washington State University and a Seattle-based real estate advisory firm Heartland. It concluded that overall demand for CLT in the Pacific Northwest region between 2016-2035 could range from 6-12 million cub feet annually for four-story construction projects, and a total of 56 million cubic feet during that time period. At that demand level, the market could support at minimum of four CLT plants.

“Our takeaway based on that…was this could be really helpful for construction, for building houses and other goals,” Swenson said. “In terms of shifting the overall timber market, it seemed unlikely.”

For builders, the benefits of CLT include faster building process, greater safety compared to steel and concrete and reduced construction noise.

Katerra is an off-site construction company that recently built a new, 250,000 square foot CLT production facility in Spokane Valley that will start operations this year.. Vaagen Timbers has also opened a new CLT plant in Colville.

“We think the combination of these two plants coming online should have a real positive impact in these (economically) depressed areas,” Curtis said.

This session state lawmakers approved ESHB 1324 extending the business and occupation (B&O) preferential tax rate for timber activities and adding CLT as a qualified product.  ESSB 5450, approved in 2018, directed the Washington State Building Code Council to adopt rules for CLT use for building residential and commercial buildings. The new code rules were approved later that year, and the International Code Council followed suit a month later.

However, one potential benefit still uncertain is with forest health and wildfires. CLT can use small-diameter tree stands that contribute to over-density and otherwise have little commercial value. Because of that, they are removed as part of a pre-commercial thinning that costs money to the landowner. If a commercial value was created for those trees, it would cost less to remove them and in the process would reduce forestland susceptibility to wildfires.

In an October YouTube video, Russ Vaagen with Vaagen Timbers said “we can add value to the forest by going out there…take those small and medium-size trees, turn them into traditional building products and then add more value to them by using them for floor systems, walls, beams and other things that give us more value than just making a regular two-by-four or two-by-six. I think that there are some really incredible opportunities there.”

For right now, Curtis says the market isn’t quite there. “That has to be proven through supply and demand. If there is going to be an increase in demand for wood buildings over concrete or steel, if that is going to shift, it seems natural there would be opportunities. I think harvesting small diameter trees is a result of good forest management, so just by nature we’re going to see some small diameter trees used.”

A similarly nuanced view is held by Swenson. “I think overall it’s not going to be a panacea, and that’s just an important perspective. What it could do, however, is provide a value added that in part or in full is produced in some of our timber communities. There’s going to be a few communities that can definitely benefit from it.”

One of the reasons small-diameter trees have yet to achieve that commercial value that there’s not enough CLT demand. Curtis added that as a new building product it has a “premium associated with it because it hasn’t been part of the standard building code for the buildings people are looking to use in it. It hasn’t been readily available locally.

“You don’t have a lot of capacity in this region to provide the material (due to) the lack of competition, the lack of supply, the lack of certainty for a contractor if they’re going to be able to get the material in time. That’s about to change.”

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