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August, 2006

Engineered Wood Products

The market continues to grow and demand is spurring products that expand builders’ options.

By Craig A. Shutt

Engineered wood products have carved out a solid niche in the building market, thanks to builders’ expanding familiarity with the products and the benefits they can provide, albeit at a higher cost than traditional lumber. Manufacturers aren’t resting on their laurels, however, as they focus on new products designed to extend the products’ capabilities and fill other needs.

"It is still an education process to let builders know about the advantages, but it’s not nearly as much as it used to be,” says Denny Huston, sales and marketing manager for the engineered wood products division of Boise Cascade LLC in Boise, Idaho. "Once builders use it, they realize it’s a better approach and seldom go back to dimensional lumber.”

Don Schwabe of Weyerhaeuser’s new iLevel division agrees. "There’s been relatively strong growth in these products, and that’s not news to dealers,” says Schwabe, vice president of marketing for engineered wood products at the Federal Way, Wash.-based company. The flooring market in particular has embraced these systems, he notes. "We’ve seen maybe 50% growth in the past five years in that market, driven by high housing starts but also by penetration. The flooring segment definitely is maturing.”

The growth will continue as consolidation in the homebuilding market progresses, says Craig Adair, director of market research for APA—The Engineered Wood Association in Tacoma, Wash. "The larger builders are driving the market. They recognize the value and savings they can gain from these components. As smaller builders are bought, they use the systems the parent company has used. And all of the large builders have bought in.” Smaller builders also keep an eye on what the competition is doing, marketers note, and will pick up ideas that seem to be working.

Products Offer Advantages

Engineered wood products of all types, including oriented strand board (OSB), I-joists, flooring systems, laminated veneer lumber (LVL) and other structural components, offer specific advantages to builders. More benefits continue to accumulate as engineering advances and builders become more familiar with the options (see "Technologies Aid Engineered Wood”).

"I-joists and LVL continue to grow in market share,” says Adair, noting that I-joists comprise about 44% of the wood-floor market currently and LVL is growing faster than I-joists due to its usage in other applications. These components began to become popular in the late 1980s and since then have experienced steady growth. "The lumber market began to drop off, and the large, wide lumber that had been available isn’t coming out of forests anymore,” he says.

Indeed, while the market for OSB and plywood is expected to decline slightly this year as the housing market cools off, other products are anticipated to maintain their production levels or rise slightly, APA reports. Panel production is expected to decline to 42.9 billion sq. ft. this year, a drop of about 0.5% from 2005, ending four consecutive years of record-setting output. OSB production is expected to total 26.57 sq. ft., up 1.6%, while plywood volume is forecast to decline 3.6% to 16.35 billion ft.

Among other engineered wood products, glulam-timber production is forecast to total 490 million board ft., about the same as 2005, while output for wood I-joists and laminated veneer lumber is forecast to rise 7.7% and 6%, respectively. Demand in other key markets is expected to offset the leveling of housing starts, the group explains. The reasons for builders’ growing interest in these products include a variety of benefits they receive:

Consistency. "It’s critical to recognize that what builders, architects and engineers want most of all is predictable performance and dimensional stability of their structural materials,” says Robert Fouquet, vice president of marketing and sales for Ainsworth Lumber in Vancouver, British Columbia. When an I-joist floor system is employed, the rim board and other structural beams are engineered wood products as well, he explains. "You can’t use dimensional lumber because the higher moisture content would lead to differential shrinkage and cause problems.”

The consistency of a manufactured product provides predictability for the builder. "He knows how it will behave and that there will be no squeaks,” says Ken Forbes, engineered wood brand manager for Louisiana-Pacific in Nashville, Tenn. "Builders recognize the cost of callbacks and that engineered wood will prevent them.”

Callbacks are more expensive than ever, and builders are recognizing the true costs involved, adds Bob Berch, national sales manager for engineered wood products at Roseburg Forest Products in Dillard, Ore. "Everyone is more sophisticated today about their costs, which helps engineered wood products.”

Longer spans and greater strength. The desire for open interiors and larger walls of windows and doors has led to the specification of structural wood that can span longer distances than traditional dimensional lumber or spliced beams, notes Berch.

Floors also are getting much heavier, as homeowners want thick ceramic tile and granite on these surfaces, as well as on countertops, Berch says. "That all plays to engineered wood’s strengths.” Adds L-P’s Forbes, "Span lengths and greater strength are two key benefits homebuilders receive. Those attributes draw them to the products, and then they see how well they work and that they have a happy homeowner, and they continue using them.”

Environmental friendliness. Because of their low moisture content upon installation, these components are less likely to allow mold to form after construction, marketers say. "Mold is a big concern for builders, and they want reassurance,” says Berch. Using recycled materials and producing less waste or recycling the waste also are attributes. At Glen Oak Lumber & Milling in Montello, Wis., for instance, the company touts its use of all material. It saves trims down to 4 in. and finger-joints them to create new lengths, while smaller lengths are ground up and sold as wood flour and shavings. "We have 100% fiber utilization, which is a stronger point for us than certification would be,” says Tom Talbot, CEO.

In fact, while all manufacturers tout environmental friendliness, it’s not a significant selling point yet, says Boise’s Huston. "Consumers aren’t always driven by environmental points. It’s an overstatement to say that it affects sales. It’s a strong and positive statement to make, but it’s not persuasive, at least not yet.”

Value. Although engineered wood products cost more than dimensional lumber, the other benefits are worth the price to builders, marketers argue. "The products are not directly cost competitive, but they provide value that makes up the difference,” says L-P’s Forbes. "It gives the builder peace of mind that he won’t have a callback. The materials cost more, but they work, and that’s why they’re growing in popularity.”

The added cost may not remain as high in the future, notes APA’s Adair. About 10.7 billion sq. ft. of production capacity will be coming on the market by 2011 because producers have begun construction on a number of new mills to handle the increased demand. "The market may not be able to absorb all of that capacity right away,” he says. "That could be a big concern in the short term.” APA is developing plans to help generate additional demand to ensure the capacity can be used.

Key Markets

Floor systems are the key market for engineered wood products, marketers say. "It is really driving the acceptance of engineered wood products, with I-joists as the major structural component,” says Ainsworth’s Fouquet. Adds Boise’s Huston, "Once builders use it, they realize it’s a better system, and they seldom go back.”

As a result, the emphasis today is on complete floor systems rather than individual components, says L-P’s Forbes. That includes rim boards, which are required at the periphery of the floor to provide support. For its line, L-P introduced a specialized Floor System earlier this year. It includes I-joists, LVL, rim board and OSB flooring.

Likewise, Weyerhaeuser has introduced the iLevel Trus Joist FrameWorks Floor System as one of the first products from its iLevel division, which combines the products from five formerly separate operations. The system features I-joists, laminated strand lumber (LSL) rim board and wood panels. "The use of engineered wood products in flooring is maturing as a market, and so we’re looking at how we can expand on that to provide complete systems, both for the flooring and for other parts of the home,” says Schwabe. "It’s incumbent upon us to provide systems, not just parts and pieces, and that includes service and software that help create the most efficient system for dealers and builders.”

LVL Gains Ground

LVL also is gaining adherents, especially with pieces being used for headers over large door and window openings. "These applications used to use spliced dimensional lumber, but increasingly, builders are using engineered wood as they realize the benefits,” says Ainsworth’s Fouquet.

Several companies, including Boise and Ainsworth, have introduced lower-cost components such as lower-grade LVL and oriented strand lumber (OSL) with structural properties sufficient for these applications. "We’re going to grow our market share in that area definitely,” says Huston. Ainsworth has introduced new span tables that will help builders use the shorter-length OSL beams in various applications, says Fouquet.

Rosboro in Springfield, Ore., is seeing its product lines grow rapidly as demand increases, particularly for system products, says Jim Enright, general sales manager. The biggest growth is coming in two areas, he notes: high-strength beams due to the longer spans houses require, and treated products. The company uses an environmentally friendly treatment to withstand mold and decay, making the structural components a strong choice for decks.

"The housing market is starting to hunker down, and many homeowners are deciding to stay put and build a deck rather than move,” he says. "That’s adding to our business. We’re seeing growing interest in engineered wood products from both homebuilders and homeowners.”

Glen Oak recently added capabilities for creating an 18-ft.-long board to handle the higher ceilings homeowners are demanding. "As ceilings get higher, it impacts stair stringers and box beams,” Talbot explains. "Long, perfect pieces are harder to get due to log diameters shrinking and other factors.” He anticipates adding a 20-ft. clear board soon due to growing demand. "Homeowners don’t want to see splices, and our veneer products can provide an invisible splice. It looks gorgeous.”

The specific species preference for veneers depends on the region, architectural style and other factors, he notes. Finger-jointed, paint-primed products also are gaining popularity, as painted moldings become more popular in the upper Midwest. "But they still want those to be hardwoods, with a bigger profile and dent resistance.”

Adaptations are being made to many of the engineered products. Boise has revamped its I-joist line to offer wider flanges, up to 3 1/2 in. compared with its previous 1 1/2-in. size. "They’re easier to handle, install and nail,” says Huston. "They’ve been received very well.”

Others are focusing on tall-wall applications to handle the higher ceilings that are popular. L-P, for instance, has gained approval for LVL products for tall-wall applications that will span 30 ft., says Forbes. Weyerhaeuser too is focusing on these uses as a key area for growth. "We want to expand the market beyond kitchens and baths, where cabinets and tiles require structural products to be used,” says Schwabe. Some high-end builders already have begun framing their homes completely with engineered wood studs, he notes. "At the end of the day, there is a real opportunity to help builders provide greater value by combining engineered wood products throughout the home.”

New Products Arrive

APA is attempting to get that message out by focusing on the value of fully sheathed wood walls, says Adair. Many builders sheathe their homes’ corners with structural panels and fill in with other materials, such as foam or fiberboard. That creates discrepancies when the homes are sided, producing waves. In addition, recent hurricane and tornado damage, where only the corners remain standing, are convincing builders to reconsider this approach. "In those areas, we’ve proven our point because the rest of the house is gone,” he says.

Technological innovation continues to promote the growth of engineered wood products, marketers say. The recent introduction of OSL by Ainsworth is expanding the use of rim board into short-span beam and header applications, cutting cost and labor from installations, says Fouquet. "The big push is coming for OSL,” agrees Rosboro’s Enright.

Weyerhaeuser is looking even further afield, concentrating its efforts on products for roofing and walls in particular. "There are good applications for walls and roofing, which helps create an entire system of framing for the builder,” says Schwabe. "It takes a variety of products, and how they are integrated is the key. It works far better if you don’t piece-meal these components from many manufacturers and instead use an entire framing system. It’s not just a matter of shipping everything together but really integrating how they work. The builder can get additional benefits from increased on-center spacing and other factors when the products work together.”

With products continuing to be value-engineered and evaluated, the market offers potential to continue to evolve. "The company that keeps innovating will be the one that wins at the end of the day,” says L-P’s Forbes. "The industry continues to see increased share of engineered wood products being used rather than framing lumber, and we expect that will continue.”

CRAIG A. SHUTT is a contributing editor with more than 27 years covering the LBM industry.

Photo caption: iLevel by Weyerhaeuser offers integrated residential framing packages that comprise all structural wood components of the home, including roofing, flooring and walls, as well as the products that go along with those pieces.

Technologies Aid Engineered Wood

Evolving technologies are continuing to improve engineered wood products. APA lists these ongoing improvements as key technologies affecting OSB products in particular:

Strand orientation. Cross-orienting layers of strands, instead of forming panels from random flakes or strands, improves panel properties, requires less wood fiber and lightens the panel’s weight.

Conveyor drying. Gentler drying provides more protection from abuse and lower temperatures while minimizing VOC emissions.

Resin technologies. Improved control of viscosity and reactivity of liquid phenolic resins increase performance and productivity. Safer and more economical resins also are being produced.

Resin efficiency. Electric atomizers provide better dispersion of liquid resin compared to pneumatic and hydraulic devices used earlier. The equipment can achieve similar structural performance at lower resin-application rates.

Strand production. Provided logs can be adequately thawed, tree-length flakers reduce the machinery needs and processing steps required when processing short blocks.

Longer strands. Lengthier strands improve the structural performance of the panel and reduce the generation of fines.

Wider forming lines. Originally 4 ft. wide, lines have been extended to 8, 9 and now 12 ft., reducing trim loss and allowing more economical manufacture of panels.

Sawlines. Computer-controlled book saws, although currently rare, can cut 8 in. of panels at once, speeding production.

Press controls. Improved control of panel thickness and density profile is obtainable through better control of hydraulic flow rates, press-closure rates and platen positioning.

Species use. Greater tolerances for mixed species, including hardwoods, help extend the wood-fiber supply, improve mill profitability and lower the cost of finished products.

Decay and fire resistance. Adding borates and other compounds to strands or resins may improve decay resistance, reduce flame spread and improve dimensional stability.

Edge sealing. mproved edge sealers reduce thickness swell.

Process control. Better use of computerized feedback and controls helps improve manufacturing efficiency. "The process improvements in the OSB industry over the past two decades have catapulted it beyond the expectations of most early observers and even enthusiasts,” the group says.

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