SmartLAM head: The US is ready for cross-laminated timber
Adoption has been slow, Casey Malmquist said, but now, "that's all changing"
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
With the cross-laminated timber (CLT) market expected to reach 1.4 million cubic meters by 2022, timber-focused firms that play their cards right are primed for healthy growth.
Casey Malmquist, president and general manager of Columbia Falls, Montana-based SmartLAM, founded the company in 2012. SmartLAM was the first manufacturer of CLT in the U.S. and one of just a handful in North America. Malmquist, a builder and developer, worked with offsite construction and had what he said was an “a-ha” moment when he discovered CLT due to the potential he saw in it from a business perspective and because the material's renewability resonated with his background in environmental studies.
Malmquist discussed with Construction Dive the benefits and opportunities in the mass timber market.
INDUSTRY DIVE: Can you unpack the environmental benefits of CLT?
CASEY MALMQUIST: Wood is the only renewable building material there is. We can literally re-grow it. That goes a long way to sustainability. When we replace concrete and steel, which are high carbon dioxide emitters, with CLT, it has some huge environmental benefits. You actually sequester carbon dioxide and avoid a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.
What do you think the greatest opportunity is for CLT in commercial construction?
MALMQUIST: The workforce dynamic is changing. The average age of a construction worker now is in the mid-50s. We don't see a lot of young people going into the trades so by reducing the labor component, which is done offsite, and the manufacturing process, it takes a much smaller crew onsite. That's a big opportunity.
The speed of build is another opportunity, particularly in commercial where you can get to revenue much faster with the modularized offsite construction technology CLT offers. Other benefits include lifecycle performance, particularly in thermal energy conserving performance, durability, deferred maintenance and dramatically reduced energy costs.
Wood has amazing material properties with everything from seismic testing to thermal performance to blast and wind resistance. One of the more interesting ones is in terms of fire resistance. It's counterintuitive, but wood actually performs better than concrete and steel in many applications when it comes to a catastrophic fire event. Testing has demonstrated that it's a very simple process called the charring effect. There's a set of charts and tables where you can calculate the rate of burn through mass timber elements. At some point after about roughly a quarter of an inch it will self extinguish because the fire has lost its combustion or oxygen source. That performance alone is pretty encouraging and shows a lot of opportunity.
How have codes changes since 2012 in regards to CLT, especially now that there's more education about CLT? Has the market become more open?
MALMQUIST: There has been a lot of work done within and outside the industry to very coherently and intelligently address the code issues. That all comes through testing. Prior to 2012, there wasn't an allowance specifically for CLT or mass timber. It was generally covered in Type 4 buildings, which are wood buildings. The 2015 (International Building Code), however, does have specific allowances for CLT and mass timber. The 2018 code has more provisions allowing mass timber and we and others have been working on amendments to the 2021 code. Each code revision is coming out with more allowances for the use of mass timber. Through education, testing and awareness it’s been a very thoughtful and respectful process.
Do you think the steel and aluminum tariffs and corresponding price increases might further the use of CLT?
MALMQUIST: I personally don't. We're not out there to wage some war against concrete and steel. There's a place for every material. Every material has some very unique properties. Those materials should be used to the best of their performance abilities, which includes concrete, steel and mass timber. I think initially there was a lot of focus on building an entire building out of mass timber. We've tried to take a little more practical look here and really trying to get it into buildings and applications where the inherent properties and its performance characteristics are best utilized.
Some of the projects we're doing are hybrid buildings that include concrete and steel, as well as mass timber, and I think that's where it will go. Right now, we're not going to react to some momentary fluctuations in the market. If it's long-term and becomes really oppressive, it might be a driver. But the adoption of CLT has been pretty organic and natural in terms of people seeing how it performs and where it can cut down costs, increase speed and improve the performance. I think those are the attributes that will drive people to its use.
Why has the U.S. been slower to adopt CLT compared to other countries?
MALMQUIST: The industry, in general, is slow to adopt. I tongue-and-cheek call it the most stubborn industry on the planet. I think there's good reason for that. It's along the lines of "if it isn't broken, don't fix it." Because we're in construction, we’re building things that house and contain people, animals and products. Those are things of value to us and there aren't a whole lot of people who want to go out on a limb and try something new for the sake of trying something new. There has to be a driver.
I think in this case one driver is environmental reasons. The construction and maintenance of buildings represent about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which is more than the transportation sector. By introducing and utilizing a renewable, sustainable product like wood, we can have an impact on that.
Adoption has been slower than we would like from a business model, but right now that's changing. Just in the past year we've seen not only an exponential interest in the product, but also in the use of it. It is starting to catch up and even though the industry may be stubborn, it's not dumb. When it comes across something that benefits it, the industry is going to use it.
What are you most excited about in the CLT industry going forward?
MALMQUIST: There are two fundamental passions that drive me. One is to be able to make a positive impact on climate change. That's very important to me and something that gets me up in the morning and going.
The other is job creation in rural areas, where I've always lived. I live in an absolutely beautiful place and am fortunate to do so, but I look at the brain drain that has occurred here over the past 20 years and a lot of our kids are going off to other states and places to earn a living. Being able to create an industry that is really quite technical with a highly automated process that involves higher tech paying jobs, design, engineering, CNC operation and millwrights is fundamental. We impact the local economy by producing good jobs.
It's been a journey, but not an easy path, but I think we're turning the corner. We're looking forward to continuing to grow the opportunity here and have some fun doing it.
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