In the face of uncertain times, EWP can provide unique wins

Weyerhaeuser is making mill investments to increase capacity with expected ramp-up in late 2022 of its Parallam Plus product line. According to the manufacturer, Parallam PSL beams add strength and reliability to structures, make longer spans possible, and allow for more design options with open, spacious floor plans.

Engineered wood products have helped shape the world for far longer than most of us realize. The ancient Incas, for example, built boats made of interlayered reeds and balsa that they used extensively to ply the waters around South America—and some say all the way to Polynesia—establishing trade routes as they went. Exceptionally buoyant, resilient, and flexible, these watercrafts were used for centuries and became the inspiration for Thor Heyerdahl who, in 1947, built a replica of one of those ancient boats that he named the Kon-Tiki. With five other crew members, Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki across the Pacific Ocean, ultimately proving the strength of engineered wood construction.

While today’s LBM dealers may not have to worry about establishing pan-Pacific trade routes, engineered wood products (or EWP as they’re commonly referred to) are an ever-growing product segment that continues yielding significant growth. By understanding the unique nature and benefits of the EWP lineup, distributors can position themselves to be problem-solvers in an otherwise unpredictable building market.

The pain of growth

After an unprecedented period of growth throughout the pandemic, the building and remodeling market is starting to see a small bit of a slowdown. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, housing starts in the U.S. sank 14.4% month-over-month in May of 2022, due in part to rising inflation and mortgage rates, which when combined with increases in the costs of building materials have hamstrung consumer budgets.

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This doesn’t mean, however, that there’s going to be slowdowns in demand for engineered wood products. As we reported last year, there’s a growing willingness on the part of builders and contractors to use alternative materials in place of historically used products—a trend that’s now putting a strain on EWP manufacturers. “The EWP industry has been running at full capacity for the past twelve months resulting in very tight supply,” says Wendy Minichiello, North America EWP sales director for Weyerhaeuser. “Unfortunately, small incremental growth that comes from mill-level production improvements won’t significantly change product availability. Any significant growth would come from new mills coming on-line or existing mills converting to EWP manufacturing.”

And those rises in interest rates? Manufacturers are still predicting EWP segment growth over the next 12 months. “While we’re seeing interest rates rise and builder sentiment cooling a bit, we’re still expecting a strong remainder to 2022 and first half of 2023,” explains Parry Healy, senior segment marketing manager at LP Building Solutions. “We’re seeing strong demand for remodeling activity, and we’re also seeing consumers interested in premium investment products like LP SmartSide Trim & Siding and products in our Structural Solutions portfolio like LP WeatherLogic Air & Water Barrier, which bodes well for engineered lumber.”

BCI Joists from Boise Cascade
BCI Joists from Boise Cascade are specially constructed I-joists with flanges made from VERSA-LAM laminated veneer lumber with oriented stranded board webs and approved waterproof structural adhesives. They’re available in long lengths, are light weight, and come with a lifetime warranty.

Chris Reiten, director of EWP sales for Boise Cascade, also sees positives for EWP product demand, as well as opportunities for manufacturing to potentially increase output. “Interest rates will obviously play a huge role throughout the economy potentially placing pressure on the housing market,” he points out. “However, we expect to continue to experience a favorable demand, be it in a more normal business environment for Boise Cascade EWP. We look to grow our production capacity going forward to better meet our customer’s needs and the demands of the marketplace now and into the future.”

Changing needs drives trends

To understand the growth of the EWP segment, LBM dealers need look no further than the increased priority homeowners are placing on sustainability and resilient design, or in other words, the creation of structures that respond better to natural and manmade disasters as well as long-term climate issues. It’s a trend that EWP is particularly suited for.

As LP’s Healy explains, “Within the walls of LP and during exchanges with customers, we’re seeing an increased interest in sustainability. We’re starting to talk about product needs and attributes that can help enhance the inherent sustainability benefits of LP products. We’re always interested in developing products that can positively impact the challenges our customers are facing. How can we make our products easier to install, transport, store, and maintain? How can we help our builders and remodelers deliver what their customers are asking for?”

Huber’s AdvanTech X-Factor
Huber’s AdvanTech X-Factor is a new class of premium subflooring with a fade-resistant, water-shedding surface on a high- performance engineered wood panel. It features a built-in protective top layer that, according to Huber, provides a distinctively smooth, even, premium subfloor surface that is marker-friendly and easy to clean, and it offers a Squeak- Free Guarantee when paired with Huber’s AdvanTech subfloor adhesive.

Builders and remodelers, too, are seeing the increased consumer demand for resilient products, and LBM dealers need to be prepared to deliver on this trend. “More and more builders prioritize resiliency, building a more durable home, as pass-through value to their clients,” points out Charlie Robinson, vice president of marketing for Huber Engineered Woods. “Homeowners and buyers are catapulting this trend as they actively research products that represent aesthetics and quality and how they perform long-term. That rings especially true for those living in weather zones vulnerable to natural disasters like coastal hurricane-prone areas.”

Sustainability and resiliency aren’t the only building trends on the rise, however. Tall wood and mass timber construction practices are gaining an increasing foothold here in the U.S., and EWP manufacturers are keenly interested in the growth potential these building methods bring. “Tall wood construction and Mass Timber continue to create a lot of excitement in the industry,” says Weyerhaeuser’s Minichiello. “The energy to build wood-based buildings and strong interest in mass timber is driving us to look deeper into how we can use wood fiber in new ways.”

LP NovaCore
According to LP Building Solutions, its LP NovaCore Thermal Insulated Sheathing is one of the only insulated panel products on the market that combines XPS foam with an oriented strand board (OSB) substrate. It addresses growing code demands by combining built-in energy code compliance features and easier installation for builders thanks to its use of 2×4 spacing that, in many markets, does not require the installer to adjust their framing size.

Mass timber include a number of engineered wood products that typically involve the lamination and compression of multiple layers to create solid panels of wood, including:

– Cross-laminated timber (CLT): used for walls, floors, and roofs, CLT is made up of layers of dimensional lumber stacked perpendicular and glued together to create structural panels that are typically three, five, or seven layers thick.

– Nail-laminated timber (NLT): used primarily for floors and roofs, NLT is made by stacking layers of dimensional lumber on end and fastening them together using nails or screws.

– Laminated Strand Lumber (LSL): resembling oriented strandboard in appearance, LSL is made from long strands of fast-growing aspen or poplar where the strands are arranged parallel to the longitudinal axis.

– Parallel Strand Lumber (PSL): typically used for columns, beams, and posts, PSL is formed from parallel wood strands bonded together with adhesive.

– Glue-laminated timber (glulam): commonly used for floors, beams, and columns, glulam is made from stacking dimensional lumber on edge and bonding them together with moisture-resistant adhesives.

Following the IBC’s update in 2021 that allows for mass timber buildings up to 18 stories, the material has become a more popular option in the U.S., primarily for small office and apartment buildings. “Mass timber is poised to take off in the next 12 months,” says Chris Webb, general manager, Canfor Engineered Wood Products. “The Softwood Lumber Board forecast a 3.8 Bfbm (billion board feet) incremental demand opportunity in non-residential construction for mass timber between now and 2035.”

Mitigating customer fears

While manufacturers consistently report the willingness of builders to try new products, there remains a level of cautiousness on their part that LBM dealers need to overcome. For some builders and contractors, engineered wood products represent somewhat of an unknown, and it takes a bit of handholding on the part of the dealer to walk their customers through the potential EWP benefits.

“Our research has shown that there is still a growing population of builders ready to try new, innovative products,” explains Huber’s Robinson. “However, the risk of change is still a tradeoff, so they respond well to education that helps justify an upgrade 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.”

LP’s Parry Healy agrees, pointing out how dependable technical support can greatly mitigate any fears builders may have when making the switch to EWP. “Our team of technical application specialists and engineers augment local sales team support for installation instruction, design specification and code compliance questions. In addition, our marketing teams provide constant streams of technical tips, videos, virtual education and ‘Meet Ups’ as part of our brand building and loyalty-driving content marketing strategy.”

Boise Cascade
According to Boise Cascade, its VERSA-LAM LVL beams and headers eliminate twisting, shrinking and splitting, and deliver flatter, quieter floors and structures. Because they have no camber and strength is consistent throughout, VERSA-LAM LVL products support heavier loads and longer spans than comparable glulam or dimension lumber products.

Boise Cascade’s Chris Reiten also stresses the value of technical support, using his company’s products as examples. “Most builders are familiar with the many benefits BCI and AJS I-joists and Versa-Lam LVL provide,” he explains. “We look to take it further by providing additional layers of support, software, and training. There are few items more frustrating to builders than jobsite delays from framing errors. Boise Cascade works closely with our dealers and distributors to provide software, training, and information to help prevent errors before they occur. If an error does occur, we offer an elevated level of support through our recently launched Engineering Support Portal. The portal provides a simple way for customers to submit questions. Internally, it is automatically assigned to the proper engineer to provide a timely response.”

Boise Cascade
Boise Cascade recently introduced its SawTek Cutter Plus automated saw as an entry level option to its SawTek systems. According to the manufacturer, the saw delivers a cost-effective method for stocking, selling and processing EWP. In addition to product optimization, processing and inventory control tools, SawTek saws can also cut holes and tag each piece
with a label that corresponds to the framing plan.

Solutions save the sale

While all these growth factors seem positioned to deliver significant returns for the LBM dealer, manufacturers are wary about being able to meet that potential growing demand. Breakdowns in infrastructure, lack of manufacturing manpower, transportation difficulties, and radical changes in fuel prices have all conspired to create an unstable environment for LBM dealers.

“The EWP industry is struggling to meet current housing demand,” says Canfor’s Webb. “North American LVL is nearing or has reached capacity throughout the industry and is in the mature phase of its product life cycle. North American LSL capacity has been reduced from 25 million ft³ to 13 million ft³ with the recent closure of a plant in Maine.”

Weyerhaeuser’s Minichiello agrees. “We believe manufacturing will continue to see pressure on transportation, labor, and raw material supply. Short to mid-term, we expect to see continued bumpiness created by the imbalance between demand and supply.”

So, in the face of these uncontrollable disruptors, how can the LBM dealer best meet the needs of their customers? Ask Boise Cascade’s Reiten, and he’ll tell you it’s all about customer service.

“Now it’s easy to sell out your entire inventory, but this won’t last forever,” he explains. “Building strong relationships, that’s good business. This does not mean always say yes. It means being there, providing solutions, not just the answers they want to hear.”

Manufacturers agree upon the importance of providing solutions. Using product knowledge to be able to pivot when a certain product is unavailable or being capable of making recommendations that can speed a customer’s job, can be the difference between a long-lasting customer relationship and a single one-time sale.

For example, manufacturers suggest stocking products that can speed installation or can be installed with fewer people. “It’s essential for dealers to ensure the products they’re stocking are installer-friendly,” recommends LP’s Healy. “Are they safe to use, easy to carry and pass to a crew member, and simple to install? Ensuring that the needs of the installer are met with the products you’re recommending will help make the build process more efficient and enjoyable for everyone involved.”

Huber’s Charlie Robinson agrees with Healy, noting how offering products from compatible lines can ultimately benefit builders and remodelers. “We find builders value the ease of compatible products under a single manufacturer used in diverse designs and applications,” he points out. “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.”

Lastly—and most obviously—manufacturers point out the necessity of product training for LBM dealer staff. “Educate your customers,” stresses Canfor’s Chris Webb. “Take advantage of manufacturing and industry expertise and offer continuing education classes to contractors/framers to educate them on new and existing products that offer solutions to their framing needs. Set up mill tours with manufacturers to learn how products are made and best practices for use.”

BlueLinx onCENTER
Available in a variety of offerings, BlueLinx’s onCENTER Engineered lumber is said to offer builders, designers and developers the flexibility to create almost limitless open floor plans in commercial and residential projects.

LP’s Healy echoes Webb’s thoughts. “Training! When your staff can speak to the features and benefits of the products being stocked, it makes it easier for them to find a good fit for a customer’s project and to sell with confidence. It’s all about finding what method works best for your team. There are many effective technology solutions for training available today. We find that providing virtual tools in combination with targeted, in-person training is the most effective approach.”

To say that the construction market, and the LBM dealer by nature of association, exist in turbulent times is an understatement, and it’s a message that’s starting to sound like a broken record. Shipping backlogs, lack of manufacturing manpower, raw material shortages, and supply chain disruptions can all conspire to create a volatile environment. EWP, however, stands ready to not only fill in the voids created by these disruptors, but can also give LBM dealers additional solutions builders are desperately looking for.

“It’s probably no surprise,” says Boise Cascade’s Chris Reiten,” that we see labor, logistics and product availability as sticking points continuing. These issues are some of the reasons why we focus on our strategy of supporting our EWP customers’ needs. For dealers, they have a key role to play and can invest in technology to improve their position in their markets. By providing an increased level of service such as design services. Both can help a dealer standout while strengthening builder relationships.” And like those ancient Incan boats, EWP can provide the innovation needed to successfully navigate these uncharted waters.

Michael Berger is the managing editor for LBM Journal, and has been writing about home improvement and construction for well over 20 years.

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