I caught the tail end of yesterday’s Mass Timber Summit, a Business Oregon-sponsored event timed to coincide but not to be confused with the much larger Mass Timber Conference that starts today in the Oregon Convention Center.
The session I attended featured an audience Q&A and an overview of challenges and opportunities associated with developing a mass timber industry in Oregon.
Mass timber is a catch-all term for very large, very strong engineered wood panels used to build tall wood buildings; the most common type is called cross-laminated timber, or "CLT."
At this stage, the Oregon CLT discussion seems to toggle between industry boosters, who view the panels as a solution to a variety of ills — the affordable housing crisis, climate change, rural economic decline — and pragmatists, who caution the state has a long way to go before mass timber catches on as a mainstream building material.
“I don’t think CLT is the answer,” said panelist Tom Williamson, managing partner of T Williamson-Timber Engineering. Williamson was responding to a question about the potential for mass timber to help Oregon counties build cheaper multifamily projects. “We’re not there at this point in time.”
Many of the summit attendees — about 100 — were public officials. By one count seven county commissioners were in the audience.
The event featured industry leaders from Europe, where the mass timber market is well-established. The European tilt underscored the competition Oregon companies face from bigger and most sophisticated players with a long history of navigating the engineering and market challenges.
The Riddle mill has attracted international attention for its effort to retool the state's struggling wood products industry around mass timber.
"Right now, there is limited supply of CLT, and more manufacturers need to get on board," Williamson said. "Valerie may not want to hear that," he said in a reference to DR Johnson president Valerie Johnson, another summit speaker. "But one company starts; then you need the big guys to come in and carry it forward.”
The problem: All the big guys are based in Europe.
Panelist Iain Macdonald, former director of the Centre for Advanced Wood Products at the University of British Columbia, is another CLT immigrant.
The Scotsman relocated to Corvallis a few months ago to head up OSU's TallWood Design Institute, formerly known as The National Center for Advanced Wood Products Manufacturing.
“The stars are aligning," Macdonald said. He pointed to the abundance of political will around CLT construction in Oregon. "The enthusiasm of the political side — the municipalities, the willingness to try, is the major reason I decided to move here three months ago.”
Panelists singled out the U.S. "knowledge gap" as a challenge for local companies interested in pursuing mass timber construction.
“It's not just engineers," said Nick Mileson, managing director of the X-LAM Alliance, a partnership between B&K Structures, a UK engineering contracter, and Binderholz, one of the largest producers of CLT in the world.
Mileson said developers and "cost consultants" need to push the market forward. "At the end of the day, [market adoption] comes down to cost. And it requires a cultural change, because you are using disruptive technology."
The concrete industry represents the biggest threat to the mass timber market, Mileson said. But the steel industry is a potential partner. Mileson described a hybrid product using steel frame and glulam beams as a "perfect marriage." Glulam, or glue laminated timber, is another type of engineered wood product used in tall timber construction.