As the country emerges from pandemic challenges, EWP is poised to provide building solutions
Back in 1744, early colonists, including founding father Benjamin Franklin, attended a treaty conference with numerous indigenous people including Chief Canasatego, a leader of the Iroquois people who had expressed his concern about the squabbling among the colonies. The chief approached Franklin and showed him a single feathered arrow which he then broke across his knee. After that, he offered Franklin a sheaf of thirteen arrows tied together, but first attempted to once again break that bundle—a feat he was not able to do. He presented that bundle to Franklin and the message was obvious—a single arrow (or colony) could be broken, but together they were significantly stronger.
In a way, today’s engineered wood products (EWP) can be seen in a similar light. They offer increased strength and durability, they’re engineered for versatility, and they offer advancements in sustainability—all benefits today’s builders and contractors are paying attention to. And market indicators show that EWP is on the rise.
According to MarketWatch’s Engineered Wood Product Market – Global Industry Analysis, Trends and Forecast 2024, which was published in April 2020, the worldwide engineered wood product market was projected to be on the rise through 2024 on account of the environment-friendly nature and sustainability of the products. And while remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic still have the potential to disrupt supply chains and raw materials availability, manufacturers are seeing a cautiously optimistic future.
Growing use, growing demand for EWP
One of the reasons for all this optimism has been the willingness of builders and contractors to use alternative materials during the pandemic to offset the unavailability of their historically used products. “It’s been reported that homebuilders have been more amenable to trying new products in light of shortages surrounding COVID-19,” says Charlie Robinson, vice president of marketing for Huber Engineered Woods. “Some reports suggest that shifts in product ordering habits to online amongst construction professionals might be leading to a willingness to try new solutions. At Huber, we’ve seen both a growth in our new product users and repeat users.”
It’s a trend that will likely play out in favor of the EWP market as the next year unfolds. As Jeff Yelle, director of OSB/EWP technology for LP Building Solutions explains, “During the course of the pandemic, many builders tried new EWP products and even processes, in part because of material shortages. Some builders that were used to mostly commodity OSB, for instance, may have upgraded to a value-added sub-flooring. I expect that many of these builders will have seen the benefits that came from using premium quality sheathing and flooring over commodity products and continue using them in order to increase the efficiency and resiliency of builds.”
Wendy Minichiello, director of North American EWP sales for Weyerhaeuser, sees a promising future as well. “For the past twelve months, the building material supply chain has been undersupplied across a wide range of products, including engineered wood. As housing starts remain strong and supply chain challenges ease, I see a very strong market for engineered wood heading into 2022.”
Greg Wells, senior marketing coordinator for Boise Cascade, agrees with what Minichiello has to say. “These are unprecedented times in the building market, and it appears housing demand will continue to be strong and we’re working hard to meet that demand. We continue to focus on our customers’ needs and satisfy them as best we can by providing not only products but support for their success.”
Still, the engineered lumber industry is facing hurdles amidst the growing demand, not least of which is the lack of manufacturing labor, a situation that was building long before the term “pandemic” was bantered around in casual conversation. To see how far back, one need look no further than two years ago. According to a 2019 report by the Manufacturing Institute and based on 2020 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one-fourth of the manufacturing workforce is age 55 or older—meaning that many are now at retirement age or soon will be.
Weyerhaeuser’s Minichiello agrees with that assessment, stating: “From an industry perspective, I believe our primary challenge will be attracting and retaining associates in manufacturing roles, the building trades, and construction related sales.”
As well, pressures from the transportation sector and the availability of raw materials is placing additional strain on the EWP market. Yet despite these difficulties, EWP manufacturers are striving to find ways to speed their products to market to meet the demand placed by the surging housing demand. “Part of facing these challenges comes down to efficiency,” says LP’s Yelle. “Creating efficient worksites reduces time and costs by cutting down on labor, materials and worksite waste. Products can help with this—introducing high-performance building products that can help drive efficiencies. LP has engineered the entire LP Structural Solutions portfolio around this idea. It is a collection of high-performance building products that can eliminate steps in the installation process and provide additional value.”
Resilient design-leading trends
While the upswing in post-pandemic construction can account for some of the growth in the EWP segment, there are other trends that are driving the growing use of engineered lumber, and these shifts look to be here to stay.
As an example, manufacturers point to the increasing interest in resilient design among homeowners, builders, and communities in general. Resilient design is the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in order to respond to natural and manmade disasters as well as long-term climate change dangers such as heat waves, and regional drought. It’s a trend, manufacturers say, that EWP is particularly suited for.
“More and more builders are prioritizing resiliency, building a more durable home, as pass-through value to their clients,” explains Huber’s Robinson. “Homeowners and buyers are catapulting this trend, as they actively research not only products that represent quality aesthetically, but also in how they perform long-term. That rings especially true for those living in weather zones vulnerable to natural disasters like coastal hurricane-prone areas.”
LP’s Jeff Yelle agrees. “I also believe we are going to see a continued integration of resilient design and resilient solutions,” he says. “I think that builders will focus less on the resiliency of individual products and more on how a system of solutions works together to increase the durability of a build.”
Hand in hand with resilient design is the increased demand for building methods that create a tighter envelope and a healthier home with better indoor air quality and increased energy efficiency. “While constructing healthier buildings is about more than simply the envelope or individual products,” explains Yelle, “a tighter building envelope is a critical piece of the puzzle. Walls need to be structurally sound and have the ability to dry in both directions to prevent bulk water from entering the home. Air sealing and controlling air quality also ultimately starts with framing to reduce air filtration paths. The demand for healthier homes is driving the industry to consider how the pieces and products work together.”
Ease fears to increase sales
Knowing the trends is one thing— being able to provide solid options while teaching the benefits of EWP products, all while allaying the fears builders may have of changing to a new product or methodology, is the real nut that the successful LBM dealer needs to crack. As Huber’s Charlie Robinson points out, “Our research has shown that there is a growing population of builders who are ready to try new, innovative products. However, the risk of change is still a tradeoff they weigh, so they respond well to educational support that can help justify an upgrade risk when switching from traditional products and methods to newer solutions like integrated sheathing or high-performance subflooring, which provide greater value for the total cost of ownership.”
Part of being able to overcome those aforementioned fears relies on the LBM distributor understanding the attractive qualities of EWP products and being able to show the benefits of making the switch, manufacturers explain. “Quality engineered wood floors represent the best of all options,” says Weyerhaeuser’s Minichiello. For example, she explains, “Utilizing a TJI joist floor with a calculated TJ-Pro Rating to the builder’s exact specification achieves the appropriate ‘feel’ based on the quality the builder is going for. For some builders, the quality feel of a floor system is as important as some higher end finishes. And when builders first migrate to an EWP floor, they see immediate improvements in call backs around floor performance, including squeaks. Second, the cycle to procure and cut a floor package is typically very efficient. As a result, many builders have migrated to placing POs with only a few days’ notice.”
Equally important to builders is not being left out in the cold once they make the switch to EWP products. For these builders, it’s vital for the LBM dealer to be able to provide reliable technical support beyond the sale that can mitigate perceived risks builders may have when switching from their current products. “Our team of technical application specialists and engineers augment local sales team support for installation instruction, design specification and code compliance questions,” says Huber’s Robinson. “In addition, our marketing teams provide constant streams of technical tips, videos and virtual education and ‘Meet Ups’ as part of our brand building and loyalty-driving content marketing strategy.”
Think of it as a long-game approach, says LP’s Jeff Yelle. “Efficiency and reduction in jobsite waste, sustainability and resiliency remain key priorities. Building professionals are having to respond to homeowners’ increased dedication to sustainability. As an industry we should be considering the longer-term view of how homes are designed to reduce energy consumption, as well as structures that are able to better withstand significant weather events without damage.”
Room to improve
If there’s one thing manufacturers agree on, it’s that the last has not been kind to the LBM dealer. With supply challenges, labor shortages, and COVID restrictions, manufacturers say that distributors have done remarkable things through unprecedented difficulties. “Dealers are doing a tremendous job in this extremely tight EWP supply environment,” says Weyerhaeuser’s Minichiello. “I admire the work our dealers are doing to keep their customers supplied and job sites progressing—this is a very tough environment, and they are working double time. I have great appreciation for all they are doing.”
Nevertheless, there is always room for LBM dealers to improve, and now that the country is returning to a greater sense of normalcy, the opportunity for that improvement is now. “When times are good, it is the best time to plan for when they are not,” says Boise Cascade’s Wells. “Now can be the time to look at innovative technology to assist with inventory management and workflow.”
For example, Boise Cascade’s Draft Mode feature in its proprietary BC Framer software allows users to complete their layouts more quickly by giving them the ability to temporarily suspend the complex structural framing connectivity calculations until they have finished drawing a portion of the structure—a real efficiency benefit for larger projects such as multifamily buildings and hotels where the calculations become time intensive due to the quantity of framing members.
It’s also a time, says manufacturers, for LBM distributors to show builders how an integrated system of EWP products can yield benefits that far exceed those of just a single stand-alone. As Huber’s Charlie Robinson explains, “We find builders value the ease of compatible products under a single manufacturer used in diverse designs and applications. For instance, when switching from traditional plywood or OSB sheathing and felt to ZIP System sheathing and tape in roof applications, builders prefer that the sheathing, underlayment, and air barrier are all covered and supported by a single manufacturing source. Similarly, when a combination of products under a single manufacturer comes backed by a higher performance guarantee, it can be a motivating upgrade for builders.”
New times, new training
In order to make the improvements manufacturers recommend to best sell EWP products, it’s vital for LBM distributors to avail themselves to as much training and educational materials as possible. In times past, this was often accomplished through in-person seminars and site visits. But in this post-COVID world, more manufacturers are providing virtual training resources.
For example, Huber offers proprietary Home Building Crossroads virtual seminar series. “The event series has grown to include more topics like, ‘Three Keys to Designing Durable Roof Systems,’ and ‘Acoustic Control in Multifamily Construction,’ says Robinson. “Another great resource for how to get the most out of our products is our Instagram profile, where our followers see jobsite videos and even FAQ IGTV episodes with our technical hotline application specialists.”
Weyerhaeuser as well has embraced virtual resources, both customer-facing and technical. “We’ve launched new training in two areas,” explains Minichiello. “With the need to move to virtual customer engagement, we refreshed and activated multiple training opportunities for specifiers and dealers early in the first half of 2020. Those really paid dividends and received excellent attendance levels as well as the endorsement to continue that format on a regular basis. Additionally, we took the time during the pandemic to revise our internal sales training curricula with an eye towards shortening the on-board cycle as well as continually refreshing our team’s technical and customer-focused skills.”
In the case of LP, it has launched its LP SkillBuilder, a new online training platform that provides on-demand video content that can be accessed whenever and wherever a pro needs it (with a Spanish version coming soon). “This is part of the LP SmartSide team’s commitment to ensuring we are offering all customers the proper training and resources to build better, which can help result in jobsite efficiency for their business,” says Chelsea Gettelfinger, segment marketing analyst at LP Building Solutions.
And for Boise Cascade, it has introduced new live and recorded education courses on its educational portal. “Each training module offers valuable information at the user’s fingertips around their schedule,” explains Boise Cascade’s Wells. “We have also offered online, live private customer educational training for customers that have specific objective or a team with varying needs or goals.”
It’s impossible to guarantee the future. We live in volatile times, and while there is always the chance that a resurgence of COVID-19 could once again trigger shutdowns and unforeseen disruptions, the crystal ball that is composed of manufacturers’ tribal knowledge seems to point to good things for the EWP market. With an increased willingness on the part of LBM customers to make the switch to EWP products, it’s the wise distributor that positions themselves to meet the growing demand while bolstering their knowledge base. And like Chief Canasatego of old, they’ll be able to offer a modern-day “bundle of arrows” as an example of strength and a vision of the future.
Michael Berger is the former managing editor for HANDY Magazine and has been writing about home improvement and construction for the past 20 years.