U.S. timber supplier positions for future in cross-laminated timber

Cross-Laminated Timber has yet to make a big splash in the U.S. market, but some forward-thinking pioneers are not standing on the sidelines waiting for the needle to move. They’re jumping in and showing people what CLT offers.

One of those pioneers is Reinhard Sauter, owner of Sauter Timber in Rockwood, Tennessee. Sauter has built his own award-winning CLT building, which he uses in his manufacturing business.

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The building takes shape with each section, or bend, in place, ready for CLT wall installation. Walls were installed in pre-cut panels, five high. Sauter photo

Earlier this year, Sauter’s building won a national award for commercial wood design from WoodWorks, an initiative of the Wood Products Council. He uses the new building to house a new machine that will help him to continue cutting timber-frame packages, but also now allows him the opportunity to cut CLT for what he considers is an emerging market in the U.S.

The first truss was assembled partially in the air. [Sauter photo]

The first truss was assembled partially in the air.

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“We see a big market in CLT coming up in the next few years,” he said. He sees one of the big stumbling blocks currently in the U.S. market is the lack of machines like his that will cut all the CLT for prefabricated packages, ready for installation. The CLT itself can be sourced from several suppliers in Europe and Canada, or new companies moving into that territory here in the U.S.

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A native of Germany, Sauter has long been familiar with CLT. It is a popular building material in Europe, where it is used for homes, businesses, and even multilevel structures. When he began to hear rumblings here in the U.S., he decided to learn more.

Sauter20]“I heard a little about the bell tower in Gastonia, North Carolina, that’s when it was first used in the United States. Then I thought a little about investigating,” he said, adding: “I went to a CLT symposium four years ago in Canada and said, ok that’s the way to go.”

Sauter said he needed a new machine anyway for his timber frame business and decided to buy a machine that could handle the job for that as well as CLT. His choice of a German-made Hundegger ROBOT-Drive, was a good reason for building a new structure to house it. He also wanted a CLT building to show prospective customers and his former metal building couldn’t do that.

 

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“We wanted to show something was possible,” Sauter explained. “We used to be in the log home industry and customers would say, ‘O.k., you sell me a log home, so, where do you live, in a log home, too?’ and I would say, ‘No, I live in a stick-frame home.’ ‘Oh,’ they would say, ‘why do you sell me a log home when you don’t live in one?’ I don’t want such a question. We’re in the wood business, we should use wood,” he said.

Because Sauter didn’t have his new machine yet, his CLT was purchased over seas. “We had everything pre-cut, pre-labeled in Austria and shipped in containers. Then we raised it up,” he said.

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There is a learning curve when working with CLT, he noted, but it is not difficult and only a few relatively inexpensive tools are needed for installation. “You have to know how to hang it on the crane, how to store it, how to support. It’s not spectacular, but [a worker should not do it] himself the first time. To understand that procedure, you have to do it once or twice or three times, then away you go.”

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CLT is often drywalled and sided, but can be left exposed and like any exposed wood, needs to be sealed. Making sure it is plumb is also critical. “You have to size things really plumb. It’s like, if you put tiles up, you put the first one up plumb, then it’s easy game.”

An outside view of the finished CLT building. [Sauter photo]

An outside view of the finished CLT building. [Sauter photo]

Sauter Timber is preparing to make CLT available the same as it currently does for timber-frame packages. “We usually buy square timber, rough sawn. We cut it and mill it and label it for how the job site needs it. We also handle details: here’s the outlet, here’s the joint, here’s how many screws are needed, here is where you put them. That’s our part,” Sauter said.

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A German-made Hundegger ROBOT-Drive was a good reason for building a new structure to house it.

Another view inside the building soon after completion. [Sauter photo]

Another view inside the building soon after completion. [Sauter photo]

His company has morphed with the demands of time, starting with log homes, then panelized packages and then timber frame. His sights are now set for a higher end market, which he believes will be first to embrace it.

Price-wise, CLT is comparable to timber frame. “I think the price is about the same as timber frame,” he said. “Timber frame is very labor intensive but you have a character, you have an aesthetic that you don’t have with CLT, which is structural.

“With stick frame you can’t compete, but with steel and concrete we’re very competitive on the commercial side.”

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In Europe, where CLT originated in the 1990s, use of the product has been growing about 25 percent a year in the past four or five years. There it is commonly used for one or two-story multifamily and single-family homes. It is being used for limited multistory buildings as well, but Sauter sees a more promising future for low-rise. Although he is not against high-rise CLT, he believes it is best for builders to focus on what is more attainable. He compares it to racing cars. “You can want to be a race car driver, but it’s probably not the best advice to start with a Formula One car,” he said.

And while the U.S. market for CLT is still on trainer wheels, Sauter believes the product is too good to be hidden for long. “Slowly it comes,” he said. “Slowly, but for sure it will.”    – By Sharon Thatcher for Rural Builder magazine

 

 

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