When Bill Downing saw cross-laminated timber (CLT) for the first time in Europe in 2008, he was impressed. The large-scale, prefabricated, solid engineered wood panels have been used in Europe for more than 20 years, but would they work in the North American market?
“We spent two years into early 2010 doing market studies and talking to architects and engineers… and decided we could bring the technology here,” says the president of Structurlam Products, a heavy timber manufacturer headquartered in Penticton, B.C.
In 2011, Structurlam opened the first CLT plant in Western North America in Okanagan Falls, which was then further expanded in 2013. Since then, the company has firmly established its reputation as a leader in mass timber solutions. Structurlam is also one of only two companies in Canada to manufacture CLT.
“We’re always pushing the envelope of wood design and wood construction,” says Downing. “The cross-laminated timber product has the potential to revolutionize commercial construction in Canada.”
And indeed over the past five years, Structurlam has successfully created market demand for CLT and demonstrated the benefits of these massive timber panels to change the way buildings are designed and constructed. From its three plants in Penticton, Okanagan Falls and Oliver, they are making products for innovative and record breaking tall wood projects across North America.
“Since we started running the press in 2011, we’ve been going strong continuously. We’ve done upgrades to it since, doubling the capacity for CLT products from when we first put it in,” says Downing, noting that the company had already starting moving to 3D modeling and extensive prefabrication. Linking 3D design to the specialized CNC (computer numerically-controlled) equipment required for CLT production has been critical.
Structurlam can manufacture CLT panels as large as 40 feet long, 10 feet wide and one foot thick. Glulam beams can be up to 120 feet long and are primarily Douglas Fir sourced from the Kootneys.
“The biggest glulams we’ve ever done were for the Canmore Recreation Centre in Alberta – those were 110 feet long and 8.5 feet deep, weighing 35,000 lbs a piece,” says Downing. One of the most complex wood structure was the Art Gallery of Ontario which used 7,000 individual and unique members.
Structurlam recently completed two more recording breaking projects: Brock Commons at UBC and Calgary’s Rocky Ridge Recreation Facility.
The Rocky Ridge Recreation Facility features the world’s largest wood constructed roof in North America, covering approximately 300,000 square foot. The project required almost two years to design and produce with the roofing consisting of 2,000 wood members, where no two are the same.
Brock Commons, at 18 storeys, will be the world’s tallest wood building of its kind when it’s completed in 2017. The student residence is the first mass wood, steel and concrete hybrid project taller than 14 storeys. The building has a concrete podium and two concrete cores, with 17 storeys of CLT floors supported on glulam wood columns.
One of the main selling points for CLT is its speed of construction, according to Downing, and Brock Commons is a living example. The mass wood structure and facade was completed four months ahead of schedule.
“We manufactured the panels to 1.5 mm in accuracy – virtually perfect. Everything was shipped down to the job site and installed. The use of very innovative connections allowed them to put up two floors a week. To see an 18 storey building going up that fast – with nine guys – drove home that huge speed benefit,” says Downing, citing other significant benefits include seismic, acoustic, environmental and a lighter weight alternative to concrete.
Prior to Brock Commons, the highest profile project for the company was the stunning six-storey Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, completed in 2014. Designed to showcase the viability of tall wood buildings, it was previously the world’s tallest modern wood building.
“It is still our largest CLT project to date by volume of fibre,” notes Downing. “It is also the project that proved Structurlam can prefabricate the complete structural shell of a tall wood building and ship it anywhere in the world.”
The push for taller wood structures hasn’t come without challenges. A major hurdle has been building codes and getting projects approved. B.C. took the lead in Canada with building code changes allowing six storey wood structures in 2009. Other jurisdictions have since followed, with six storey buildings now adopted into the National Building Code.
“We can go six storeys now, but not in every jurisdiction. In Canada, you can use the alternate solution to build outside of the building code which is not ideal,” explains Downing, noting introducing CLT into the U.S. has been a slower process because of code restrictions. “Now we have received a new ICC report which allows us to use CLT as a floor diaphragm in the U.S. So we can start selling CLT to California, which we couldn’t have done without an ICC report.”
This makes Structurlam’s CrossLam the only ICC approved CLT panel for lateral system design in North America.
Indeed, CLT has been a game changer for tall wood buildings and interest continues to grow. Downing credits B.C.’s Wood First Initiative and organizations like FPInnovations and Canada Wood Council for helping to open up markets for commercial structural applications for wood.
“When we first got our plant going, the B.C. government also funded three demonstration projects to use the product… so we’ve had lots of help along the way,” he says. “It took everybody working together with a common vision to educate specifiers primarily. Nothing happens in our world until an architect specifies wood.”
Structurlam’s first mass timber project was the Elkford Community Conference Centre. Another milestone project was the UBC Earth Sciences Building.
Downing says innovation and investment in technology have been key to Structurlam’s success.
“It’s really exciting to be at the forefront and I’m so proud of the guys here and their ability to deliver these amazing buildings that push the envelope,” he says.
Structurlam has a long history in B.C., founded in 1962 by two brothers to manufacture high quality glulam beams and columns. Over the years, the company’s innovative wood products have been used in many iconic projects including the Korean pavilion at Expo 67 and the world’s biggest hockey stick at Expo 86. Award winning wooden structures such as the Richmond Oval and Vancouver Convention Centre have also put the world spotlight on the company.
Since becoming president in 2007, Downing has been actively developing the market for CLT and ensuring the company can produce them efficiently and cost effectively. Bringing leading-edge equipment over from Europe has also been a core focus.
“All our equipment is European. We won’t catch up on the machinery side but in terms of what we do with them – I think we’re their equals,” says Downing, noting they own the world’s biggest planer.
With 30 years in the forest products industry, Downing has a diverse background in manufacturing and is excited about B.C.’s leadership in structural wood use.
“We have some of the most amazing structures here already and we have all the ingredients,” he says. “We have manufacturers, fantastic architects and engineers who know how to build with wood, and the trades who can install the wood.”
Born in Kaslo, B.C., Downing grew up in the Kootenay region where forestry has always been a big part of his life. He graduated with a degree in forestry from UBC and obtained a MBA from the University of Washington.
As a registered professional forester, Downing began his career at Wynndel Box and Lumber Co in Creston. In 1990 intrigued by new mapping technology, he joined PCI Geomatics in Victoria where he held various senior positions.
In 2001, he became the CEO of BC Wood Specialties Group, a not-for-profit industry trade association for the province’s value-added wood producers. After six years there, he decided to move back to the private sector and joined Structurlam in 2007, when Adera Group bought the family owned company.
Today Structurlam has 170 employees across its three facilities. While they manufacture a variety of products, 75 per cent of what they produce is project oriented.
“In other words, if someone wants to build a new library or a city hall, we supply all the wood members for that. Everything’s prefabricated, finished and ready to go,” says Downing, who is now one of the four owners and very proud to be creating jobs in the Okanagan.
Current projects include a six-storey expansion to the Lakeshore Resort in Penticton, a multi-family development in UBC’s Wesbrook Village and an eight storey condo in Portland, Oregon. The owner of the Lakeshore Resort is also proposing a 22 storey wood condo tower next to the hotel, notes Downing, and if that goes ahead, it will set another record.
Although the majority of their projects have been in B.C. and Alberta, they have supplied about a dozen in the U.S. and a few in Asia. “The U.S. marketplace has great potential and we’re focused on expanding down south,” says Downing, who expects more competitors to come into the market.
The potential for CLT technology goes beyond constructing buildings. The company also makes an industrial matting product (an adhesive only solution) with the same technology. “I can see in the future doing packaging, concrete forming and things we haven’t even thought of yet. There are all kinds of application for these massive wood panels,” he says.
The increase use of mass timber for mid and highrise projects is not without controversy. The concrete and steel sectors have both voiced their opposition. “At the end of the day, every single building we do is a hybrid – wood and steel, wood and concrete,” asserts Downing. “It’s about using materials in the best possible way.”
As for the future, he is optimistic for further market growth. “I can see larger and more complicated buildings being built out of wood – things you wouldn’t expect to be built out of wood in the future,” he says, adding the structures being designed now were unimaginable only 10 years ago.
Read the Sept/Oct issue of Construction Business here: http://issuu.com/riccardo11/docs/cb_septoct_2016_1/1