With shortages in skilled labor expected to continue, the lumber industry is turning to innovation to keep pace with expected growth.
Next to stone, lumber is our oldest building material. Here in the United States, lumber literally built our country and is so intrinsically tied to our history that it’s practically impossible to separate one from the other. Going back to the early 1600s, the British-owned Virginia Company started using the American colony of Jamestown to supply lumber for the British crown. Lumber production spread throughout the colonies, and by the Revolutionary War, New England was exporting over 36 million feet of pine boards every year. Today, that number is significantly higher; U.S. softwood lumber production in 2018 totaled a whopping 34,873 million board feet.
You might be tempted to think that, in light of the amount of production, lumber should practically sell itself and be of no concern. Yet the lumber market can be a volatile commodity, and dealers and distributors need to be ready to serve their customers as a resource, providing not only product but information and solutions for today’s building challenges.
The good and bad
This time last year, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) forecast 1.268 million housing starts for 2019, and Fannie Mae forecast 1.265 million starts, 903,000 of which were single family—only a marginal increase over 2018. This year, however, Fannie Mae is forecasting a brighter picture. For 2020, it predicts growth in single-family housing starts to swell 10%, and by 2021 to exceed 1 million. If this pans out as Fannie Mae predicts, it would mark a post-recession high.
But just as things go up, they must come down, and it’s the ongoing labor shortage that’s causing the concern. According to a recent survey of nearly 1,000 contractors conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America and Sage Construction, most construction companies expect business to grow in 2020 but the ability to find qualified workers to shrink. 81% of respondents say they are having a hard time filling positions, and almost two-thirds expect it will continue to be hard or become harder to hire personnel in the coming 12 months.
It’s because of both the anticipated growth and the potential inability to keep pace with it that contractors are looking for unique lumber and panel solutions. “Quality and affordability continue to be the primary drivers for most builders as they wrestle with how to build a great finished structure that also addresses the affordability gap,” explains Craig Miles, business marketing manager of OSB/EWP at LP Building Solutions. “They want building solutions and installation practices that can eliminate labor and/or complexity from the process—both of those equate to time, and time is money. But they also want to know that more efficient installations don’t equate to sub-par quality.”
Grant Jelec, product manager for Weyerhaeuser, agrees. “The industry overall has seen constraints in highly skilled labor. This constraint has driven the demand for quality product installations that allow products to perform like they are intended which ultimately leads to less call-backs, which saves the builder time and money.”
Rob Johnson, director of EWP at Boise Cascade, echoes Miles’ comments. “Probably the biggest impact we are seeing is not product-related; it’s labor,” he says. “Lumber and panels solutions continue to evolve, and customers continue to demand better performing products, but they are having a harder time finding skilled installers. Dealers are experiencing the same constraints and are searching for solutions to increase efficiencies. Simply put, they are trying to do more with less.”
Innovate or die
If there’s a common denominator in what’s driving emerging trends in lumber and panels, it’s the ability of manufacturers to create product that provides unique solutions that increase installation efficiency, sustainability, and overall energy efficiency. Manufacturers who do—and the LBM distributors who then carry those products—thrive. Those who do not run the risk of becoming extinct.
“A new trend we’re seeing is the continued move toward tighter building envelopes and more resilient design,” says Jason Darling, general manager of Huber’s ZIP System Products. “The industry will continue to evolve toward greater efficiency in two primary ways: first, the energy efficiency of the home and, second, the efficiency of the construction process. We’re seeing more builders seeking to go above and beyond code requirements to build truly tight houses as a point of distinction in their market. Tight homes discourage air from moving through the walls, which helps control temperature and air quality in the home. Integrated air and water-barrier systems such as ZIP System building enclosures are a no-brainer in making this move towards these types of designs because they eliminate steps to ensure the integrity of the continuity of air and water control barriers.”
The ability for products to better withstand a changing environment is also a major driving factor in product development. With FEMA currently redrawing and updating flood maps, more new products are being introduced that are designed to handle severe weather conditions. “We see the need for increased resiliency as a new trend that is driving our product innovation and future thoughts around structural panels,” explains LP’s Miles. “We take a broad definition of resiliency to include better energy efficiency and structural strength as well as the ability to meet greater design needs. As an industry, we are employing a technological approach to meeting the specific resiliency demands that exist in certain geographical areas. Examples include straight-line winds in Kansas, hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, and earthquakes and wildfires in California.”
Mother Nature, however, is not the only factor that is driving the development of more energy efficient products. The current International Energy Conservation Code (currently adopted in 47 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, New York City and Puerto Rico) calls for more energy-efficient products, and with an expected update to the code coming in 2021, those efficiency requirements are expected to become even more stringent. “New building codes are requiring builders to think beyond traditional products and embrace innovation,” says Matt Minchew, general manager of Huber’s ZIP System Products for roof applications. “In general, codes are pushing toward tighter building envelopes. For manufacturers, including Huber Engineered Woods, we have to produce systems that deliver advanced performance that translates into a reasonable added value tradeoff for a builder switching materials.”
John Beers, vice president of sales for Georgia-Pacific Structural Panels, shares similar thoughts. “Energy codes in particular are having an impact in this space. Builders are looking to build structures with lower air exchanges per hour, which means the house will be more energy efficient in the long run. House wrap is a good water barrier, but not a good air barrier because it’s hanging loose on the sheathing. With an integrated system and taped seams like our ForceField product, it helps minimize air movement in the building enclosure.”
Efficiency and resiliency, however, come in many forms. As Fritz Mason, president of Georgia-Pacific points out, being able to work faster and with fewer team members is just as important as being able to build smarter. “We continue to see a lot of energy around offsite, or modular, construction,” he says. “Modular construction is not a new concept, but more and more builders are moving components like trusses and wall sections off site to help improve consistency and speed of their builds. This doesn’t necessarily impact how our products are made today, but could in the future with new innovations and step changes in how we prepare and ship our products.”
Mason goes on to say, “Mass timber construction is also an intriguing concept, and the ability to build higher with wood obviously is appealing to a company like Georgia-Pacific. It is definitely a different way to build, but so far seems to be very efficient, faster and requires fewer people on the job.”
Give ’em what they want
To stay competitive and profitable, LBM dealers need to know what their customers want when it comes to lumber and panel products. And according to the manufacturers, speed, quality, efficiency, and affordability top the list. “First and foremost, builders are looking for lumber and panel products from trusted manufacturers that provide consistent quality,” explains Georgia-Pacific’s Mason. “Their plates are already full, and they don’t need callbacks and problems with framing products that might slow their job or take them away from other aspects of their job. Second, builders are on the lookout for new and innovative modifications to their structural framing products that help solve problems—reduce cycle times, reduce the need for skilled labor, and other factors that can help them reduce costs and positively impact their bottom line.”
LP’s Craig Miles agrees. “Quality and affordability continue to be the primary drivers for most builders as they wrestle with how to build a great finished structure that also addresses the affordability gap,” he says. “They want building solutions and installation practices that can eliminate labor and/or complexity from the process. Both of those equate to time, and time is money. But they also want to know that more efficient installations don’t equate to sub-par quality. LP Structural Solutions is a portfolio of framing and sheathing products and accessories that work together to meet needs based on local code, regional resiliency needs and overall integration of materials.”
And as ZIP System Products’ Darling explains, “Builders are looking for a system that is readily available, affordable and has a track record of proven performance. Additional value propositions like curb appeal and contributing to energy efficiency also come into play, but fundamentally, builders want a system that is easy to use and one they know will work. We’ve seen consistent growth in builders choosing ZIP System products to meet these needs since 2006.”
But just as important as the product they sell, the successful LBM dealer needs to serve as a knowledge base for their customers so they can achieve the building solutions homeowners are looking for. “The most successful LBM dealers are those that stay abreast of the latest product information and have the ability to share with their customers,” says Boise Cascade’s Johnson. “It’s important to not just stay on top of product changes but also on industry economic insights, code changes and market data, and then share that with their customers. By doing so, they aren’t just pushing products but become a valuable resource to their customers and part of their team.”
Georgia-Pacific’s Mason agrees, stresses that staying educated on new technologies, codes and new and emerging building practices is imperative. “The rate of innovation and change in construction is higher than ever, and consumers are more educated than they’re ever been.” He also points out the importance of staying abreast of changes in product availability and prices and then knowing how to position yourself to adapt. “As an example,” he says, “the supply of Western SPF has tightened up as a result of the mountain pine beetle epidemic while Southern Pine lumber is plentiful and is an attractive alternative in western markets. Making sure they are on top of these emerging trends is key to the LBM dealer staying ahead.”
It boils down to making the purchasing process as easy as possible for the contractor. LP’s Miles explains, “The biggest opportunity feels like simplifying the shopping experience for builders by helping them understand the specific, broad resilience challenges in their markets and carrying a suite of appropriate products to help their builders meet that challenge. Be a solution provider instead of just a product vendor.
When LBM dealers gain an understanding of the challenges that their respective markets face regarding resiliency needs, they are able to offer the solutions that efficiently and effectively meet—or, even better, exceed the local code—and help communities have a better defense against the increasing weather occurrences in a given area.”
Get to know your reps
So how does an LBM dealer become a knowledge resource? One of the easiest ways is to develop and maintain strong relationships with its manufacturer reps. As ZIP System Products’ Jason Darling explains, “Research consistently shows builders look to LBM dealers for product education, to make economic tradeoff decisions, and ultimately understand the pass-through value to their clients. That’s why we’ve continuously invested in programs to support lumberyard employee education like our ‘Prove It Tour’ product demonstration events held at hundreds of dealer locations each year. As companies bring in new products, we recognize the importance of direct access to manufacturer’s technical team, local sales reps and marketing to make product adoption in the area a success.”
It’s not enough to simply study information on a manufacturer’s website (although all manufacturers we interviewed for this story maintain extensive online in-depth product information). Rather, it’s by taking advantage of a wide array of training and learning resources that LBM dealers and their employees can achieve the highest levels of learning. “We know that everyone learns differently,” explains Darling, “so we offer several different training tools, whether it’s printed PDFs and manuals available online, or how-to videos on the ZIP System YouTube channel or Instagram account. We also put a great deal of emphasis on hands-on experiential learning, so our team is constantly on the road visiting lumberyards, builders, and attending trade shows to provide training and materials in person.”
Manufacturers stand ready, willing and able to provide as much training as a dealer or distributor wants. For example, LP Building Solutions offers a variety of educational and training materials to builders and distributors, some through third parties that it partners with, and some it conducts either in person or via webinar. “An example of this,” says LP’s Miles, “is a training course we offer on advanced framing techniques for high-performance design, including a subsection on how advanced framing can improve energy efficiency.”
In the case of Boise Cascade, it offers online training that covers product knowledge, the company’s software tools, and the basics of the building industry so that new EWP designers can get up to speed quickly. In addition, the company provides in-market trainers who follow up with designers to ensure they understand how to most efficiently meet customers’ needs, and it offers in-person advanced design classes where designers take a deep dive into complex topics and learn methods to increase productivity. As Chris Brandt, software manager for Boise Cascade, explains, “Our dealers can take advantage of the company’s integrated suite of software tools and SawTek automated material processing solutions to set themselves apart through their service offerings, and as a result the builder realizes improved efficiency, reduced waste and fewer call backs.”
Likewise, Weyerhaeuser offers various course topics and styles to fit distributors’ needs and learning styles. “Weyerhaeuser Learning provides educational resources to help customers get the most from our products and services,” says David Gibson, sales manager for Weyerhaeuser. “Whether you’re a seasoned sales professional, a builder using our products, a dealer software expert or a construction industry newcomer working with building materials and services for the first time, we offer resources—from online self-study, webinars or instructor-led classes at central locations—to help you develop your professional skills.”
While no one can say with 100% accuracy that the future of the lumber market is poised to deliver consistent growth in the coming year, all signs are favorable. With the predicted upswing in housing starts and the release of products that promise solutions to the labor shortage, builders should have confidence that 2020 will be a year of growth. As long as the LBM dealer is poised to be a knowledge resource for those builders, then the future should deliver rewards as rich as the optimistic predictions.
An Easier to Assemble Wall
If you think there’s not much new in the world of panel wall construction, you’re in for a surprise. PUReWall by Hunter Panels is a new product that, according to the manufacturer, is designed to be a highly energy-efficient wall solution for builders, one that requires 60% fewer hours to erect on the jobsite as compared to traditional building methods, thus eliminating bottlenecks and the problems related to a reduced workforce.
PUReWall is a continuously insulated, structural residential wall assembly that uses a combination of framing lumber along with Hunter Panels’ proprietary PW-CG polyiso (a rigid polyisocyanurate continuous insulation panel) on the exterior and PW-STR (a proprietary structural spray foam formulation) in the wall cavity. The panels provide increased R-values compared to traditional stick-framing and insulation solutions, and the continuous insulation coupled with taped joints function as a weather, air and vapor resistive barrier, thus eliminating the need for house wrap.
The PUReWall framing, insulation, and structural foam are all assembled/applied in the company’s panelization facility and shipped installation-ready to the jobsite, thus allowing for repeatable, tight tolerance construction. PUReWall is also scalable to meet current energy codes, including requirements for continuous insulation, and it can be designed to perform beyond existing building codes, making it a potential good fit for net zero and passive home designs.
To learn more about PUReWall by Hunter Panels, visit hunterpanels.com/purewall.