In Depth: Engineered wood products
In today’s world of skilled labor shortages, engineered wood products provide design flexibility while delivering strength, ease of installation, and product consistency.
It remains an axiom of life that the things you don’t see are often the most important. That adage could also be said to apply to engineered wood products (or EWP as it is commonly referred to). You might not always see engineered wood components once a structure is built, but it is there nonetheless, acting as an unsung hero that has helped bring about some of the greatest advancements in design.
Technically speaking, EWPs are advanced high-performance building products that provide dimensional stability and consistency of performance by utilizing small dimension lumber, veneers, and wood fibers to help create stability and performance. As a product category, EWPs have had a dramatic impact on the building industry, and they are poised to have an even more prominent role in the very near future, with projected growth tied to the increase in the U.S. housing market.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent report of new residential construction, privately owned housing starts in May of this year were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,350,000. This is 5% above the revised April estimate of 1,286,000 and is 20.3% above the May 2017 rate of 1,122,000. Single-family housing starts in May were at a rate of 936,000 (3.9% above the revised April figure of 901,000).
Concurrently, the report shows that when it comes to building permits, privately owned housing units authorized by building permits in May were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1,301,000, 4.6% below the revised April rate of 1,364,000 but 8% above last year’s rate of 1,205,000 at this time.
Joe K. Elling, Market Research Director for APA – The Engineered Wood Association, echoes these government figures and sees a positive outlook for the category, one in line with earlier predictions. “Given how 2018 is unfolding in terms of the end-use markets, most notably in residential construction, the outlook for engineered wood products is about the same for 2019 compared to what we thought it would be 12 months ago,” he says. “The APA forecast calls for U.S. housing starts in 2019 to be 1.36 million units, up from 1.3 million in 2018. Using I-joists as one measure, demand for North American-produced I-joists is expected to be up 6% in 2018, and up another 2% to 3% in 2019.”
In fact, every industry expert interviewed weighed in with a positive outlook for the next few years in regards to EWP, and it’s a future that’s not solely dependent on housing starts. As Kelly Harmon, EWP Business Development Manager for LP Building Products, pointed out, “I anticipate EWP to continue to grow over the next year and longer due to several factors such as pricing stability, extreme swings in commodity lumber, long length lumber demand, quality of lumber, and greater design flexibility.”
In regards to this anticipated growth, residential construction (both single- and multi-family) remains the single biggest contributor for EWP manufacturers. “Single family and multi-family home construction consumes the largest volume of engineered wood products,” says Brian Wells, Director of Marketing for Rosboro.
“Wood is also becoming more common in mixed-use development projects, specifically mass timber construction, which is helping to drive growth in solid section engineered wood products such as glulam beams and columns.”
“Within new residential construction, single-family homes and multifamily are important subcategories,” adds Ross Theilen, North America Engineered Lumber Products (ELP) Sales Director for Weyerhaeuser. “Single family homes have historically constituted a larger percent of sales than multifamily, and we expect that trend to continue and consider both important for our long-term success.”
Millennials in particular are a strong driving force in the residential growth forecast. “In both our internal forecasting and market observations, we see continued recovery in new residential construction,” says Chris Reiten, National Business Development Manager at Boise Cascade. “Millennials are purchasing new homes. We’re seeing year-over-year growth in single-family starts and are predicting a 5-7% increase in 2019.”
This rosy forecast is not, however, without its thorns. “While the first quarter was slightly sluggish because of historically high moisture that delayed construction projects,” explains Charlie Robinson, Vice President of Marketing for Huber Engineered Woods, “the second quarter has come back with a surge of demand to pick up pace restoring growth to projected levels for the year. The greatest barrier to growth compared to years past and looking forward is labor, in both trucking and construction.”
APA’s Elling echoes Robinson’s concerns in regards to labor; specifically, the shortage of skilled labor for on-site product installation gives him pause. “Skilled construction labor is scarce,” he says. “The number of openings in the construction industry is at a record high and developed lot supply remains tight, especially in the western states where demand-supply balance is the tightest.” Still, even factoring in on-site labor issues, EWP usage and demand appears to be headed nowhere but up.
Reaching new heights
If there’s one trend that’s poised to spur growth and development of EWP, it’s that of building tall with what’s referred to as mass timber construction. Traditionally more popular in Europe than it has been here in the U.S., mass timber construction utilizes a primary load-bearing structure that’s made of either solid or engineered wood. As well, it uses solid wood panels to frame a building’s walls, floors and roofs and is seen as a sustainable and more carbon-friendly alternative to steel and concrete.
“Mass timber construction is becoming increasingly popular in fourand five-story mixed-use development,” explains Rosboro’s Wells. “Mass timber construction utilizes solid-section engineered wood products such as glulam beams, Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), as well as some solid sawn lumber and timbers. Glulam is often used in beam and column applications while CLT panels form the wall and roof decks. Architects appreciate the beauty and environmental benefits of wood construction and developers choose wood over steel and concrete designs because wood is easier to work with and provides a significant cost advantage.”
Mass timber products include a number of large engineered wood products that typically involve the lamination and compression of multiple layers to create solid panels of wood, including:
• Cross-laminated timber (CLT). Used for floors, walls and roofs, CLT is made up of layers of dimensional lumber stacked perpendicular and glued together to create structural panels that are typically three, five or seven layers thick.
• Nail-laminated timber (NLT). Used primarily for floors and roofs, NLT is made by stacking layers of dimensional lumber on end and fastening them together using nails or screws.
• Laminated Strand Lumber (LSL). Resembling oriented strandboard in appearance, LSL is made from long strands of fast-growing aspen or poplar where the strands are arranged parallel to the longitudinal axis of the member.
• Parallel Strand Lumber (PSL). Typically used for columns, beams and posts, PSL is formed from parallel wood strands bonded together with adhesive.
• Glue-laminated timber (glulam). Commonly used for floors, beams and columns, glulam is made from stacking dimensional lumber on edge and bonding them together with moisture- resistant adhesives.
“Glulam is fundamental to mass timber,” explains Chris Webb, General Manager of EWP sales for Canfor Southern Pine. “It is the core of the structure used as beams and columns. Designers can also design glulam in the plank orientation for floor or roof decking.”