CLT for the masses
Billed as the largest gathering of cross-laminated timber and other mass timber experts in the world, the International Mass Timber Conference is coming to Portland next week.
With more than 1,200 experts from 22 countries expected to attend the conference (March 19-21), it's a chance for the architecture, engineering and construction trades to catch up on all that's new in building with wood.
Mass timber includes cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber, glulam beams and panels, mass plywood panels, dowel-laminated timber, and laminated veneer lumber.
The keynote speaker on Thursday is Paul Williamson, Managing Director, Modular Housing for Swan Housing in the U.K. His talk is called "From Land to Long-Term Ownership: How a Joined Up Approach Is Revolutionizing the Housing Market". Williamson recently spoke to the Business Tribune by phone.
He acknowledges that there is more mass timber construction going on in Europe than in North America. "You're where Europe was in the 1990s, just building capacity."
But he sees the delay as natural.
"It's a lead-lag thing. A lot of people did a lot of talking about CLT homes in Europe before we got around to doing it. It takes some time to bring the industry online, and quite rightly, you want to do it with your own lumber."
There has been a lot of interest from the States, with Swan showing off its buildings to visitors. Swan designs modular two-story houses and some apartments which are built in a factory in Basildon, Essex, just east of London.
Swan is a housing association, which in the U.K. provides low-cost social housing
for people in need of a home (known here as affordable housing). Housing associations occupy a niche between government subsidized "council housing" and market rate.
They build 5-by-13 meter volumetric models and prefer to be near where the homes are installed. He says the facility could be anywhere in the U.K., since it is not tied to ports. Most of the lumber they use is pine and larch and comes from Austria, Germany and the Nordic region. British timber is generally not strong enough for CLT.
"We still have a green agenda, but we also must consider cost and speed.
Aside from its carbon sequestration properties and lower embodied energy costs, Swan uses mass timber because it's a flexible material for building in a factory setting.
"We need to be manufacturing homes, not constructing them in the field. That's why we did it, and it works well for us."
The U.K. is "looking at a mass housing shortage and a mass skill shortage. Combined, that makes it hard to increase housing reserves, and keep up with the demand."
Williamson is an electronic engineer. His background was in commercial lighting, working on projects such as London's Crossrail. He came to Swan because of his knowledge of just-in-time manufacturing. They use a production line technique similar to Toyota's. Modular manufacturing could bring better productivity to the U.S. and U.K., he says.
"In the U.K. people know what type of house they want to live in, but rarely does it come up how is it built. We do focus groups, talk about light and space and kitchen appliances and bathrooms...When we say 'Would you live in a modular home?' They say they wouldn't mind."
He says the media, design and construction fraternity get more worried about mass timber's reputation than the public. "In reality people don't mind either way. They just want their home to look good, feel good and be defect-free. After all, people have for a long time been buying cars that are reliable from day one. They can't understand why houses can't be the same."
In the U.K., the average number of return visits by contractors to a new home is four.
For Brexit, Britain's exit from the European Union scheduled for March 29, Williamson says they are stockpiling lumber in case there are shortage caused by disruption at the ports.
"We'll wait and see. The reality is we're not sure anyone knows what's going to happen."
He's excited to come to Oregon for the first time, which has built a reputation in mass timber to add to its history as a lumber state.
"I like talking to anybody who's passionate about what they do. You can always gain something from most people you meet, and sometimes it translates into what you're doing."
International Mass Timber Conference
When: March 19-21, 2019
Where: Oregon Convention Center, 777 N.E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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