In Depth: Engineered Lumber
Innovations in engineered lumber speed installation, improve home performance, and meet shifting building codes.
Nestled behind the walls, engineered lumber doesn’t always get the glamour and glory as some building product categories with flashier, more frequent introductions. But it’s engineered lumber that is responsible for much of the home’s structural integrity and long-term performance, and as codes become more stringent and demand for quality increases, the category’s importance only continues to grow.
Engineered lumber manufacturers continue to offer up innovative product options and newly designed systems that accommodate everything from energy savings to increased comfort underfoot. Savvy dealers who know their product offerings and their capabilities can be a vital partner to builder customers looking to build quality, high-performing homes—and there are ample resources and tools to help them do so.
Like the rest of the industry, engineered wood producers and retailers are navigating a housing recovery that’s climbing slowly but steadily, yet is still fraught with supply and labor challenges.
“It’s a favorable environment on the demand side, in terms of favorable mortgage rates,” says Joe Elling, Director of Market Research for APA – The Engineered Wood Association. “The story is still on the supply side with the scarcity of construction labor and the lack of availability of buildable lots.”
And though production of I-joists, structural panels, and glulam is still below peak numbers of 10 years ago, housing supply challenges aren’t holding back engineered lumber production. According to APA’s most recent numbers released in July, I-joist production in North America was up 12% in the first half of 2017, LVL was up 11%, and glulam and structural panel output were both up 3%.
Manufacturers have been gradually increasing capacity to accommodate the resurging market. Boise Cascade, for example, bought Georgia-Pacific’s engineered lumber business last year and has reopened both of its mills with investments in new equipment.
“We are definitely feeling an increase from the housing market recovery,” says Tim Debelius, Marketing Manager for Boise Cascade. “Honestly we’re all fortunate that the recovery is at a nice consistent pace rather than highly volatile. The limit on the system isn’t EWP capacity, it’s framing labor. We’re well positioned for the recovery as it’s developing from a capacity perspective. And if there was more framing labor available, we’d be able to supply additional wood.”
Engineered lumber has been garnering more attention over the past few years, says David Smith, Glulam Sales Manager for Rosboro, as users embrace green messaging and installation efficiencies, and as technologies such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) make headlines. “Wood is good again with architects and engineers. We have a lot of projects and a lot of inquiries from the design community,” Smith says. “There’s excitement. The green message is definitely resonating with the design community. They’re really embracing wood.”
Debelius says consumers are driving interest, as well, as they seek quality and a nice appearance. “Homeowners purchasing their home don’t want to see gray or weathered wood being installed. So we’ve focused on the appearance of engineered wood and making sure quality is high,” he says. “For example, we ease the edges on beams and joists to prevent splinters. It’s those little things that help make the builder’s life easier.”
As a structural product, engineered lumber products don’t change at quite as rapid a pace as other categories, such as faucets or flooring. Yet innovations continue to proliferate, particularly as manufacturers seek to help builders meet evolving codes, improve quality, and make homes more energy efficient.
For example, for the past few years, engineered lumber manufacturers have been creating solutions to meet new fire protection requirements for floor systems over unfinished basements.
Boise helped APA develop a series of prescriptive paths to meeting the new code requirements, which are outlined in APA’s System Report SR-405. These include applying gypsum to the bottom of the I-joist flange and installing mineral wool insulation.
Several manufacturers offer product- specific solutions that also comply. Boise’s AJS 24 FMJ I-joist has insulation board on the web, providing a one-step fire solution for unfinished basements.
“We’ve focused on ready-to-frame solutions,” says Reid Williams, EWP Engineered and Technical Support Manager for LP Building Products. “There are lots of ways to meet that need … but we really focus on how can we to get a product to the builder that meets the builder’s needs and makes their lives as easy and as cost effective as possible.”
The company has two product options that meet the code: Laminated strand lumber (LSL), which can be used in place of traditional I-joists with no modification, or LP FlameBlock I-joist, designed for builders who want an I-joist solution rather than a solid solution like the LSL. The LP Flame- Block I-joist takes the company’s Solid- Start I-joist and adds a thicker web and a Pyrotite coating that slows the effects of heat and flames.
Weyerhaeuser has temporarily discontinued its TJI Joists with Flak Jacket Protection, which have a coating that enhances fire resistance. The company announced it is working with customers to address concerns about an odor in newly constructed homes with the product.
The International Energy Conservation Code is another area the industry is paying close attention to, as recent changes impact the design and construction of wood-framed walls.
APA recently updated its guide, “IECC Compliance Options for Wood- Frame Wall Assemblies,” which it co-publishes with the International Code Council. The guide offers examples of wood-frame wall assemblies that achieve R-20 and R-13+5 requirements.
Marilyn Thompson, APA’s Market Communications Director, notes that builders will soon be able to use a performance path for compliance, rather than just prescriptive options, such as using advanced framing to create more cavity space for insulation and insulating ductwork. “We’re looking at different assemblies and providing the design recommendations that help builders navigate the new options available in the code.”
Along with products that address the changing market, manufacturers continue to improve and enhance their traditional product lines. Rosboro has reintroduced its BigBeam DF 30F 2.1E glulam, a high-strength composite glulam. The beam’s original Southern yellow pine core has been swapped with Douglas fir stock that the company is able to produce internally.
The high-strength composite is designed for carrying heavier loads. It complements the company’s X-Beam architectural appearance glulam beam.
Boise offers a glulam beam and a column made with Alaskan yellow cedar, a naturally decay-resistant species, offering an exterior beam alternative to treated products.
Along with direct product innovations, manufacturers are educating builders on the best ways to utilize their products to improve the home.
For example, LP educates dealers and end users on how to incorporate LSL into wall systems to accommodate problem-prone areas. LSL can be used in place of a traditional stick of lumber throughout the frame, from stud walls and sill plates to headers, rafters, and stair stringers, notes Kelly Harmon, EWP business development for LP.
You can plug in LSL in certain difficult zones, particularly those that need to stay straight, such as long hallways or kitchen walls, where movement can throw off the look of the cabinetry or countertops.
The swap raises the price, but, as Harmon points out, it’s small in the sense of ensuring a $40,000 kitchen looks and performs its best. “Part of the value-add that EWP floor systems give the builder is an opportunity to work with their dealer to plan ahead and design in quality,” says Williams. “With engineered wood there are opportunities where the builder is able to ID a key need and then address that need. … For example, behind the cabinets, they can say, ‘I want high-quality product there.’”
Using LSL can help avoid callbacks or time-consuming shimming of cabinets or caulking of countertops due to wavy walls. Harmon cautions dealers that LSL is a more complicated sale to builders used to using all dimension lumber, so the onus is on the dealer to demonstrate and educate them on how it will speed up time and eliminate waste.
In the floor, LSL can be used in areas such as the island to help isolate vibration and increase comfort.
“Those things are hard to quantify the value of until you start talking about callbacks,” notes Williams. “All of those callbacks have a cause, and much of the time it has to do with the framing lumber.”
Harmon also points to door and window headers, where an LSL header can replace a site-built header composed of 2x10s or 2x12s, OSB, and 2x4s. That switch can save time, reduce the amount of wood needed, and allow for increased cavity insulation.
Boise is also tackling floor systems with the introduction of BC FloorValue, a system for helping designers understand how the floor will feel before installation and how that feel is impacted by things like kitchen islands. Accessible through its BC Calc and BC Framer software programs, the system provides a deflection heat map that helps the designer identify problem spots.
“We’re bringing new capabilities to the problem of how you design floor systems,” says Debelius.
Weyerhaeuser targets floor feel through its TJ-Pro Rating program, a system that helps dealers and their customers select floor system components and assemblies that ensure a certain level of performance.