Improving on nature

Talk to any contractor and you’ll hear the same thing. There’s no guarantee when it comes to lumber.

On any given delivery, pieces can be warped or have knots that make them too weak for construction. The unusable wood must be recycled, dumped or resold at a loss. Thus many builders and lumber dealers are taking a look at engineered wood products as a way to contain costs and control overhead.

Though engineered wood has been on the market for half a century, technological advances have enabled manufacturers to improve quality, increase the number and variety of applications and offer more competitive prices. Still, the upfront cost of dimensional lumber remains less.

“But if you’re really comparing apples to apples, you must look at the total cost of the project,” says Steve Wozny, co-owner of Starwood Rafter in Independence, Wis., makers of glued laminated (glulam) timber arch rafters and beams. “You can save money by reducing labor costs, and you don’t need as much product because less framing is necessary.”

Ohio Timberland, a manufacturer of nail laminated columns in Stryker, Ohio, markets exclusively to the post-frame industry. President and engineer Mike Burkholder points out that, because “one of the greatest benefits of engineered products is their strength,” builders can do more with less.

Added strength also means more design flexibility, notes co-owner Tom Niska of Timber Technologies LLC, a maker of glulam columns and beams in Colfax, Wis.

“More people are using engineered wood products because they can do designs that weren’t possible before, while getting more bang for their buck,” Niska says. Though the homebuilding industry was initially the leader in the use of engineered products, he reports, now the post-frame sector is getting on board.

“It takes time for new products to gain acceptance, but we’re finding more unique and efficient ways to use engineered wood products,” agrees marketing manager Greg Wells of Weyerhaeuser, a manufacturer of residential building products based Boise, Idaho.

But Leo Shirek, manager of research and product development for Wick Building Systems in Mazomanie, Wis., says the trend toward increased use of engineered wood is unmistakable.

“In the early 1990s,” he observes, “engineered wood products started to become more popular. Since then, we’ve incorporated more of it into our product line. Also, increased usage of engineered wood helps forestry companies replace the larger-growth trees which have become depleted.”

The team at Graber Post Buildings in Montgomery, Ind., sees the post-frame industry from every angle. As sales manager Mark Graber points out, the company not only manufactures building products and offers a full-service lumberyard but also maintains 18 construction crews.

Crew manager Marlin Swartzentruber points out, “The market price of dimensional lumber will continue to go up — and it’s also harder to find good wood. Not only is engineered wood a consistent product, but the price is more stable than dimensional wood.”

Steady growth
In the early 1970s, Starwood Rafters saw a need for an engineered wood product that could satisfy the demands of large agricultural buildings. Thus the company developed its Lam-Ply Truss which combines plywood, glulams and dimensional lumber to make a truss that is stronger than a conventional web truss.

“By allowing the builder to space the trusses further apart,” Wozny explains, “the product reduces erection time and labor costs. Having fewer trusses also limits bird nesting and improves ventilation in livestock facilities.”

Since engineered products don’t require a certain tree length to accommodate larger roofs, the trusses can be custom-built. “We’ve made trusses up to 80 feet long,” Wozny reports, “and in virtually every size, dimension or slope.”

Although Lam-Ply itself has not changed much since its introduction, Wozny says demand for engineered wood trusses has grown steadily through both good and bad economic.

Recently Starwood Rafters added a new 12,000-square-foot production facility. Success apparently breeds success, he believes, since “the popularity that comes of engineered wood is driven by word of mouth. If someone sees a building made with engineered wood products, they want to incorporate the same products into their own next project. Then, too, the products can be used in any climate, even in areas prone to hurricanes or harsh winters.”

While Starwood Rafters primarily targets the agricultural construction market, Ohio Timberland has sold engineered wood for a variety of uses.

“The design values of dimensional lumber are low, so that your options are limited,” explains Burkholder. “But many types of post-frame construction—such as churches, schools, shopping centers, firehouses and gymnasiums — can benefit from the higher design values of engineered products.”

Quality counts
Ohio Timberland reports that it, too, is seeing increased demand. “The quality of dimensional lumber isn’t getting better,” relates Burkholder. Traditionally the best quality has come from smaller mills, but many of those operators are being squeezed out by the economy and now find themselves at a disadvantage in competing with the big lumber suppliers. As a result, builders may find themselves with fewer supply options.

More than a decade ago Burkholder’s father observed that a decrease in the quality of dimensional lumber was creating an opportunity for engineered products. After examining the glulam process, however, Ohio Timberland settled on a nail-laminated assembly that employs mechanical fasteners.

The process also employs kiln drying so that its columns are “lighter than traditional timbers and therefore easier for crews to handle,” points out Burkholder, who estimates that builders can reduce erection time by 15 to 20 percent. By contrast, he says, traditional timber columns are heavier because they are often cut from fast-growing trees.

Chemical preservatives used with these trees can also “make them more likely to become crooked,” Burkholder adds. Thus when dimensional lumber arrives on the jobsite, he contends, “Sometimes you can only use half of what you’ve paid for. The rest must be cut up and resold, and you don’t get your money out of it.”

Lightening the load
Customers of Timber Technologies, asserts Tom Niska, “should receive a shipment of 100 percent useable product. Engineered wood is made in a stable environment. So it’s a predictable product that’s not going to shrink, twist or warp.”

Although the technology has been around for 50 years, Niska says that demand for engineered wood products first began to take off about 10 or 15 years ago.

“When the glulam products first hit the market they were often used for agricultural applications,” he explains, “but people didn’t realize their capability. Now that there is more exposure to what engineered wood can do, there is better acceptance of the product for post-frame construction.”

Nevertheless, price swings in dimensional lumber can affect demand. “Lumber is at a 15-year low in pricing. But it’s very cyclical and volatile. In August 2004 we hit an eight-year high,” observes Niska, who considers himself something of a “geek” about watching lumber prices. He and his partner, Dale Schiferl, have been in business together for only a little over five years, but Niska started studying the lumber market years before that.

When the price of dimensional lumber rises, engineered wood may seem like a more viable option to many builders. Yet for some projects, engineered products can at times be reliably cheaper. “At about 20 feet tall, our columns become less expensive” than conventional products, he says.

Niska agrees that engineered products are lighter than their traditional counterparts. For example, he says, “A 6×6 piece of lumber weighs twice as much as engineered.” Longer lengths can be erected without special equipment. At the same time, finding long lengths of conventional lumber “is getting less common and more expensive,” he notes.

“Post-frame buildings tend to be taller, wider structures. But with our manufacturing process, we’ve made roof rafter applications as wide as 80 to 100 feet in a single piece. We just get the specs and make whatever size is needed to carry the load,” says Niska.
Making engineered wood requires less energy, Niska says, than turning out lumber. “And it’s reusable, renewable and recyclable,” he adds.

Weyerhaeuser’s Greg Wells agrees that his company’s engineered wood products are environmentally responsible. “We can manufacture large beams using smaller trees,” he explains, “and that means the capability to build tall walls using a single member.”

Weyerhaeuser’s engineered products include TimberStrand, a laminated strand lumber (LSL) used for framing, plus its iLevel product line that features Microllam laminated veneer lumber (LVL) for window and door headers, and Parallam parallel strand lumber (PSL) beams.

Earlier this year the company launched Sheer Brace, a structural wall bracing product designed for areas prone to high winds or seismic activity.

The strength and reliability of engineered wood is the result of a manufacturing process that “takes the inconsistencies of the tree and then randomizes them as the product is being put together,” Wells says. “The real changes are coming via technology. People will be using software to build more efficiently. It will allow contractors to utilize their inventory to its fullest, eliminating and reducing waste.”

More applications
Wick Buildings first began incorporating engineered wood into its product line in the 1990s, Leo Shirek says, because “barn owners want to eliminate as much lumber as possible, which allows for a cleaner look and prevents birds from roosting in the trusses.”

While these and other requirements for agricultural buildings have not changed, the lumber market has.

“Thirty years ago it wasn’t uncommon to build trusses with 30-foot-long material in Douglas fir,” Shirek recalls, “but today, 20 feet of Southern yellow pine is the maximum length. More than that and you’ll pay a big premium.”

Thus Wick continues to seek more applications for engineered wood in its product line.

“Through the years, engineered wood has become more cost-efficient than conventional lumber,” Shirek reports. “Rafter spans can reach up to 40- and 60-foot lengths. That’s a huge advantage for design. And the material is manufactured with very small tolerances. So although you pay more initially, it’s gained back in labor costs — and a lot less callbacks.”

Most manufacturers offer training on their products, whether directly or through their distributors. Help is also available in determining where builders can save money by using engineered products alongside dimensional lumber.

“New manufacturing methods have nearly doubled the bending strength of engineered wood,” Shirek reports. “But in sections of a structure where you don’t need that much strength — and yet you have to match the physical dimensions of other sections — then you might want to mix an engineered product with dimensional lumber.”
Graber Post Buildings’ Swartzentruber says his company began using engineered wood when local counties started to mandate its use.

“We got a computer program and set up a grid to determine when engineered wood was necessary for certain applications,” he recalls. Today Graber frequently employs engineered wood “for headers over larger doors, for roof trusses, and for long rafter situations,” he says, “and for commercial projects we use it to construct balconies or to create more headroom.

“I’ve worked with engineered products now for 15 years,” Swartzentruber continues. “They never have to be straightened. So the products are easier for my crews to work with and there’s less waste at the end of a job. Although it’s a little more expensive, the extra strength makes it a viable product for us.”

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