Karim Khalifa from Sidewalk Labs presented a "City from Wood" at the Mass Timber Conference in Portland – the Smart City project at Toronto's waterfront is projected to become the biggest timber construction project of all times © Günther Jauk

Mass Timber Conference 2019

Google is "CLT-ing"

Article by Günther Jauk, translated by Susanne Höfler | 03.04.2019 - 09:12

Hubert Rhomberg from Cree inspired conference participants with his keynote speech © Günther Jauk

The sector is growing considerably faster in North America than in Europe, Hubert Rhomberg from Cree postulated in his keynote speech in Portland – this assessment was corroborated by data that Bill Parsons from Woodworks presented: The number of CLT projects in the United States is doubling almost annually – up until now, more than 500 realized and planned CLT objects have been reported. Considering the country's size, this is still a moderate number, but it is expected to increase considerably over the next years.

Big plans

Accordingly, the mood in Portland was very positive. CLT producers from both sides of the Atlantic oceans reported steadily growing demand. A possible way how cross-laminated timber could develop in North America became especially apparent during the panel at the end of the event. Karim Khalifa, Director Building Innovation Sidewalk Labs, and Michelle Kaufmann, Head of Google's R+D for the Built Environment – both subsidiaries of Google group Alphabet – reported of implemented and planned solid wood projects by the internet giant.

Khalif announced a mega project at Toronto's port where a new smart urban quarter made from wood is going to emerge on 325 ha – he called it the biggest timber construction project of all times. Kaufmann spoke about the development and implementation of ecological, sustainable company sites of the group where CLT often plays a central role.

The enterprise also wants to share the knowledge gained from such projects so that other market participants are able to recognize and implement that as well – a lever that could have big impact.

New CLT factories planned

Machine suppliers were satisfied as well. Besides confirmed projects like the one by Kalesnikoff Lumber in British Columbia/BC or Smartlam's capacity expansion, American and European machine suppliers reported "several promising projects in different stages of planning".

At the end of 2018, International Beams in Alabama launched the first CLT line with Southern Yellow Pine. Currently, Katerra in Spokane, Washington, is launching. Another project launch in Washington scheduled for this year is the CLT-glulam combination line from Vaagen Timbers.

Interesting in this context is also the history of market participants. Unlike in Europe, only a few North American CLT producers have their own sawmill what, considering the massive lumber price fluctuations, could turn out to be another challenge. Several machine suppliers have still not noticed significant interest in CLT while others have already received actual requests in this area.

Suitable raw material needed

But not only prices but also the quality of raw materials will play an important role in the future. In Europe, rough-sawn side boards with a wood moisture ratio of 12% is considered suitable raw material for CLT – an assortment that does de facto not exist in North America where wood is usually dried to a moisture ratio of 19% and for the most part planed. Here, sawyers and further processors will have to find a way that is satisfactory to both sides.

In principle, however, lumber supply for the North American CLT industry should not pose a problem. "Even if CLT production increased tenfold this would only take up a fraction of American lumber supply," Bryan Beck, president of the Beck Group, informed in Portland.

Emotions and facts

Apart from technical specialist lectures and panels, the Mass Timber Conference was especially about the internalization of an idea and a new and sustainable way of building.

Like in Europe – even if with way more pathos – the idea is to establish cross-laminated timber and the entire value-added chain of wood not as part of the problem but of the solution. Next to facts, the emotional level is pivotal in this respect: "Give them facts so they understand and give them stories so they care."