As the marketplace for engineered wood products in Australia expands and matures, several experienced industry voices in the EWP sector share their ideas. By Donyale Harrison

Listening to people in our industry, the same concerns often repeat: we need to take market share back from steel, we need to make the best use of our wood fibre; we need to show what timber is capable of.

Increasingly, one set of products is held up as the answer to all these desires. Engineered wood products (EWP) are booming in popularity across the country for their structural properties, natural qualities and wide adaptability. Glulam and LVL are commonly used as structural timbers, especially over large spans. Oriented strand board (OSB) has become a preferred bracing option. And the growth in new products including CLT, floor cassettes and other panellised options is booming.

Great news, job done, yes?

Not quite. Talking with some of the people who are at the forefront of bringing EWP to the Australian market, many identify issues with education about which products are fit for purpose, which are under-used at this time, and what the industry could be doing better. Over the following pages we take a look at what’s working well, what could be better, and what all of us can do to make the most of the advantages EWP offer to all parts of our industry.

Quality product

In a country where ‘compliance’ may end up as word of the year given how often it’s been used, EWP come with both benefits and difficulties.

The key benefit is that they are generally very reliable. Suppliers, manufacturers, and the EWPAA, a highly engaged industry association, have all worked hard to educate merchants, builders and the general public about fit for purpose product. (We’ll get to the other side of the education equation later.)

In addition to quality imports, Australia already has manufacturers producing world-class boards, floorboards, glulam and LVL, and XLam will soon have competition in local CLT (see page 11). However, the Australian Standards haven’t kept pace with industry. The result is a series of products that are of high quality but are hard to compare.

“We’re a company that is seriously invested in Australian manufacturing,” says Robert Mansell, business development manager commercial, at Hyne Timber.

“But Australian Standards for engineered timber products are not complete. There’s no AS for CLT, we manufacture the ISO standard. Which makes sense, as there’s currently one manufacturer. We’ll see a change. Others are not as robust as they could be. For example, there is a standard for LVL, but there is no specific set of property standards. So all LVL products are considered proprietary in that their manufacturers or suppliers should be having them tested and then publishing those product values, performance characteristics, design properties and so on.”

Mansell says Australian firms working with LVL do an admirable job of all the above, but it leads to complexity when comparing properties between manufacturers, which can make it difficult to show one product is a conforming substitution for another that has been specified.

“It’s a very complex matter because non-conforming building products are certainly in the spotlight,” says Mansell. “And the only way to know if a product is conforming is to be able to provide evidentiary truth that they’ve been tested to be what they claim to be. There’s got to be a lot of work done in that space for timber in general.”

When AS 1328.1 Glued-laminated structural timber was written 21 years ago, LVL and glulam were exotic materials.

Now products such as I-joist, LVL and glulam beams have matured to become rather generic. “‘Building industry standard’ is what I call them now,” says Kent Powell, national sales and marketing manager at Meyer Timber. “Back in the ’90s, I-joist was considered ‘sexy’. This was the race for the ‘span’ when reps, detailers and designers could almost recite the spanning capabilities of numerous I-joists on the market. Now 80% of the market uses 300mm I-joist with multiple thickness choices.”

For all they’ve become common, EWP are still impressive. “LVL19 is an incredibly strong timber beam that can replace steel in certain applications,” says Leon Quinn, national sales and marketing manager at Tilling Timber. “Steel made its inroads into construction on the basis of strength and that advantage can now often be challenged with EWP solutions. On other criteria, from sustainability to ease of use, timber was already in front and remains there.”

Total floor design solutions are now the focus over competitive span performance and rightly so, says Powell: “The race for ‘E’ values (stiffness) in LVL has created new understandings and opportunities of a range of E graded products like E 9, 10, 11 and 12 all slotting into fit for purpose uses. Now we have a developed range of products, the next step is adding value through prefabrication and it is here where the offsite vs onsite value proposition will be challenged.”

EWP floorboard products have had a less straightforward rise through the marketplace. “Some of the early engineered products in the market were fairly dubious,” says Simon Tuddin, product manager at Woodsmith (part of Neville Smith Forest Products). “But that’s changed. Now the imported product is better and there is excellent Australian product, too.“

Again, there is no Australian standard for engineered floorboards; the European standard EN 13329 is used instead. However, this creates fewer problems than with structural timbers.

Instead, price has proved to be the biggest barrier. “Unfortunately, we earn good wages against much of the world,” says Tuddin. And that makes it difficult to compete.”

The solution has been to not compete with everybody. As Tuddin explains, “Our product is aimed more at a higher end market, where the client might have a few extra dollars to spend, and has the, well, call it luxury or call it the benefit of being able to afford to be Australian in their choices.”

Selling on sustainability

Tuddin’s reflection that price is overly dominant with Australian buyers is one that most merchants, suppliers and manufacturers will be familiar with. However, sustainability is definitely climbing up the ranks when it comes to criteria for purchase and EWP have a legitimate credibility there.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve gone from 500,000m3 of Tasmanian Oak a year to basically 135,000m3 a year, at a time when the population of Australia hit 25 million 10 years earlier than we thought it would,” says Tuddin. “And you’ve got a population of people who want a lovely home with a lovely timber floor. So, it’s our responsibility as manufacturers and providers of these products to respect the resource and make the best value items that we can.”

Manufacturing limitations means Australian engineered floorboards are mostly produced overseas. “We send 25mm boards overseas to our manufacturer as our blanks,” says Tuddin, “and those are sliced into thin lamellas that go on the top of the engineered board. In the sector, most of these are 3mm thick, ours are 3.2mm, which means you can get multiple usable boards from what would have been one in a solid timber floor. This has expanded the range of what we can take to market, without needing more fibre.”

Structural EWP have a similar story to tell regarding responsible wood fibre usage. Depending on the product, the engineering process can take lower durability fibre and use processes – adhesives, pressure, treatment or heat – to dramatically increase its durability and strength. Shapes and lengths of product that would be prohibitively difficult or expensive from natural wood product can be achieved with comparative ease, and high-quality timbers can be used sparingly as external veneers for their aesthetic qualities, or in combinations of properties that make the best of each veneer’s respective qualities.

It’s not just the higher recovery rates represented by EWP against solid timber product, it’s also the structures themselves.

“Europe has been using CLT successfully for 25-30 years now,” says Mansell. “Their colder climates mean a Passive House style building, which CLT is ideal for, is very well received. Our climate is different, which means it’s not as economical over its lifetime for homes, but it’s one of the cheapest ways of building a mid-rise building and its mass timber qualities have multiple benefits there.”

These include thermal and sound insulation and the ability to minimise concrete use in the foundations as well as to lock up large amounts of carbon in the structure of the building itself.

“I think that’s why we’re seeing a large number of projects built using CLT in a very short space of time,” Mansell says. “Everybody wants to use CLT, they’ve just got to come to terms with the different design needs and cost points. But the number of projects being delivered now is quite extraordinary for a relatively new product.”

Market misconceptions

Given the timber industry can be somewhat conservative, it’s heartening to see how fully EWP has been embraced. But there are still a few myths around, and some of them are products of EWP’s own success.

“In some geographical markets, builders’ love affair with LVL has created, dare I say it, overuse,” says Powell. “I’ve seen some uses that are non fit for purpose, I’m thinking in particular of H3 LVL in outdoor applications where the product has some pitfalls. It needs to be installed to the letter of the manufacturers: both the LVL producer and treatment provider. In this case, good old H3 Radiata MGP 10/F7 would have been a far safer product choice.”

Which isn’t to say all LVLs are equal. Product from a single manufacturer can be made to different specifications depending on the order’s requirements, let alone product from European, American or New Zealand suppliers. There is a broad mix of species used in the production of LVL and also a range of treatment levels and adaptability to treatment, as well as coatings that help to protect the product –most of these designed to last during construction. ‘LVL’ is a process, not a single product.

That said, some of the misconceptions out there are a case of traditional thinking not keeping up with technology. Tilling SmartJoist is one of the leading EWP floor systems available, but, says Quinn, it is being under-utilised. “I-joists are sometimes in healthy competition with open-web trusses that are more expensive, though not necessarily superior,” Quinn explains.

“We have more work to do educating new users who don’t yet understand the quality of I-joist. They often believe service and access holes can’t be drilled, when they can. Some also believe that narrower flanges are inferior, when they aren’t. That because the joists are lightweight and efficient they are flimsy, when an I-joist floor system is engineered to perform.”

Mansell has had some similar issues regarding Australian-made product. “We’re still importing a lot, particularly glulam and CLT, purely because there’s a perception that European and American manufacturers have years of experience, therefore they are better, or they’re seen as more advanced in that marketplace.”

Like Quinn, Mansell flags more industry education as the response. A bigger problem, he suggests, is the Australian market’s focus on price.

“People want to use the cheapest product that can structurally do the job. But is that fit for purpose in the sense that it is being used in the right locations? Is it going to give the client the design life that they’re expecting from that product? And are people being educated on how to use that product so as to achieve that design life?”

As with LVL, he puts some of the problem down to people forgetting timber has limitations. “People think timber is bulletproof. But you need the right species of product for the application; the right natural durability or the right treatments for that product; the correct detailing, from design point onwards, so that we don’t create a hazard for the product but instead protect it in the manner necessary to achieve design life.”

And – in the piece that is too often missing at the moment, the responsibility for the product needs to pass on at some point to the asset manager or owner who keep the building to that standard with appropriate maintenance.

Sharing data

One of the most attractive aspects of EWP is their consistency. Unlike a sawn log, which will have been affected by growing conditions and may have widely varying qualities across its diameter, EWP are designed to deliver what they say on the label.

That ‘label’ is a thing of value in itself. While suppliers including Tilling, Meyer, ITI, Dindas and Wesbeam have documentation for their product readily available, Hyne has for the last 18 months also supplied BIM content for its glulam (GLT).

“Our customers really appreciate the information we provide,” says Mansell. “It’s easy to obtain and they can share it across all sectors. It increases the range of projects and building activities across all sectors of the market that we’re involved in, from our traditional standalone homes and townhouses to two- and three-storey units and now moving into mid-rise building types, whether they be offices or residential.”

BIM – Building Information Modelling – content for products includes all the standard documentation such as treatments, tolerances, wind classifications and so on in digital form, but also a digital representation of that product, which can be integrated into a larger model.

That digital representation isn’t just a ‘drawing’ of the product that can fit into an architect’s plan, rather, each element carries with it a whole range of material properties such as strength, stiffness, response to penetrations of different sizes at different locations, durability, maintenance requirements and even appearance.

“It also has images that help us with the 3D visualisation of the project,” Mansell says. “So not only do they have a drawing tool, they also have the rendering tools available to them. And all of that information can then be shared among the consultant teams: the architects and engineers.”

Hyne BIM content is currently available for use in the Revit suite and at the time of writing is almost complete for ArchiCAD.

“We’ve also found there is interest from the market that adds value to those BIM models” says Mansell, “people who do renderings, who do the virtual walk-throughs or add the next dimension of estimating and quantity services are also seeking to gain access. I think BIM needs to be more of a focus across all building types and that more timber companies should get involved and create more content. It definitely helps – it gets us the inquiry and the inquiry then can lead to further discussion and further discussion often leads to specification.”

When it comes to using the product, Design Centres such as those provided by Tilling, Dindas and Wesbeam, provide engineering solutions to go with their product. Tilling and Wesbeam have also created customer e-portals that help the flow of information in both directions.

Hyne also has design software under development, which will be available in a full web environment, so people can check the design from the tablet or their smartphone as well as a desktop or laptop.

“The important thing with that is that we’re including a range of our competitors’ products in our software,” says Mansell. “We now see them as customers, because they’re in a different market sector to us, doing things we’re not doing, so their products can mix with our products comfortably and seamlessly in a design. We included Tilling, Dindas, Wesbeam and a few others now.

“It also gives customers an opportunity to compare one product against the other in the event that their preferred choice is not available at the time they need it. They can run a quick check and have something of equivalent performance value supplied by the supplier in a fairly quick space of time. It grows timber’s share of the market.”

Engineered Flooring

Unlike structural EWP, many of which hit the Australian market as a mature technology, EWP floorboards had a few tribulations in the early days.

“A lot of that was around the stability of the boards,” says Tuddin. “Early on, a lot of the substrates were plywood. Now, more commonly there’s the substrate of a good engineered board. It’s cross-laminated sections with the lamella on top of that, and that makes for a very stable floor.”

The attractiveness of the finish, along with the perceived ease of use, has helped to quickly rebuild market confidence. However, as with structural EWP, there have been fit for purpose issues, again often caused by the appeal of the product. As Tuddin says, “We see some floors go down in light commercial places such as cafes and they do take a bit of a hiding. It comes down to specifiers making sure they place a timber floor in the right area. If it’s a high traffic cafe, quite often a timber floor just isn’t suitable for that. And when I say timber floor, I mean solid as well as EWP floors.

“I think that people will look at a brand new space and go, ‘Oh, wouldn’t a timber floor look fantastic?’ And of course it would – when it’s brand new. But let’s have realistic expectations on the performance of a timber floor. So whenever I talk to a client or designer, or if I get in front of some architects, I always say, ‘Don’t forget how wonderful it looks on the wall.’”

Installation is a perennial issue for flooring and engineered flooring is no different. Using an experienced and accomplished installer has definite rewards.

“I want to see people use good quality accessories, like stair nosings and finishing strips whenever you change the levels of a floor,” Tuddin says. “All of those can be manufactured as companion products that go together along with engineered boards and make the finished floor look really good.

“Instead of aluminium finish strips between a floor and where carpet meets it, I like to see an actual piece of timber that’s been manufactured with a rollover. That really finishes it off. And when you’ve got a doorway, I also like to see a piece of flooring used at 90 degrees to make an entrance to the next room.”

It’s more than just an aesthetic preference. “I’m a wood machinist by trade; I started in the industry when I was 17, I’m 55 now,” says Tuddin. “I love our forests and I want to see people value the product in the way it should be, to treat it with respect. A good installation achieves that.”

Education matters

WoodSolutions, Frame Australia, Timber Queensland, the Timber Development Association and the Centre for Future Timber Structures at the University of Queensland School of Civil Engineering are just a few of the industry and academic bodies that have invested time and money attempting to educate the Australian market – mostly industry, but also consumers – about EWP.

The result is a great many well-researched and easily accessible resources, but a more mixed success when it comes to end users taking advantage of them. Architects have a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) requirement, but there’s none for builders or developers, nor for timber merchants.

The result is an incomplete understanding of much of the product on the market, as well as builders and fabricators missing out on work they don’t know they can achieve. Or developers spending more for an end product that is less successful than it might have been if constructed with EWP or using new EWP-based building systems.

Leading EWP suppliers and manufacturers have also committed large amounts of resources to educating end users (and also regulatory bodies, but that’s a separate story). From speaking at conferences and industry functions to opening up factories and taking visitors on site walk-throughs to show EWP during construction, even running workshops for fabricators to gain familiarity with the product, a lot of people contribute a lot of their time, energy and money to providing tools and education.

”I think that for designers, builders and developers, it’s within their interest and their own level of responsibility to attend those events to get the most out of that information that’s available,” says Mansell.

Builders and fabricators in particular often plead time poverty as a reason for not engaging. Meyer Timber’s response has been to bring the communication strategy into their inboxes and letterboxes. “We’re actively reaching out to our customer base,” says Powell. “These include updates via our meyPLAN Plan Portal Software and monthly email broadcasts of our “IN DETAIL” newsletter, which goes out to an evolving and growing database of customers and designers and provides a technical view to trending market topics with a particular focus on design methodology.

“Last but not least, we’ve recently taken engineering solutions directly to the TTN readership with George and Afzal’s Timber Noggins column. We know an educated customer is an empowered customer, so we’ve made that our focus.”

At Tilling, they’ve adopted an Oprah-like omnichannel approach, says Quinn: “We use the website, social media, literature and trade shows. We are producing learning videos and are the major sponsor of Frame Australia Built Offsite. Craig Kay speaks at seminars regularly, and we’re also a major sponsor of the FWPA Mid-rise Advisory Program. Yes we want people to know about our product, but the bigger message is creating more opportunities for timber as an alternative to concrete and steel.”

The end goal is for timber to be used, and used correctly, with an understanding that every product is different, which reaches all the way down the supply chain.

“The timber industry gets challenged a lot on a lot of fronts,” Mansell says. “One of those is durability. The other one is fire. There’s product innovation that goes with that. If more people took advantage of the educational opportunities available, we’d get better results and a better understanding and appreciation of what Australian manufacturers and wholesalers offer.

“Quite often we attend these presentations and we see the same sorts of people. A lot of them are the same actual people. It’d be nice to see a broader range of people wanting to get involved.”

What’s next?

“It’s panelisation,” says Powell when asked what EWP’s next expansion will be. “We’re already seeing the success of floor cassettes, which have proved profitable for fabricators and popular with builders. Off site and modular methodologies will continue to grow using and integrating EWP. There are multiple reasons why I say this, ranging from cost and safety to more opportunity and end of life re-use.”

Powell acknowledges that it will require a significant culture shift across the industry, including financing as well as builders and fabricators. “We’re going to need to collaborate through the chain if we want to do it successfully,” he says. “The good news is that once we start down that path, we’ll discover multiple advantages together that will make the anxiety and stress of the change more than worthwhile.”

Mansell agrees that collaboration is essential to the future, though his focus is on materials. “We’ve seen a rapid expansion of CLT, but we’re also seeing a mix of glulam, CLT and LVL products in those spaces as well.

“I think that, as an industry, rather than being holistically focused on CLT or GLT, we will look to a range of products and systems to deliver a project more affordably. I know of projects where Australian LVL and Australian CLT have been used in partnership that worked extraordinarily well. Being Australian-based product made a difference in that those products matched: they were designed for the same market, the same climate and so on.”

Hyne’s new glulam plant is also nearing completion and will bring improvements on existing products in terms of appearance and availability, as well as more information regarding testing.

For Quinn, the future is about increasing the ease of communication and advice from suppliers to merchants and end users. “We want to be able to deliver the best engineered and most efficient solution for the builder’s project,” he says. “One that represents the best balance of quality and economy. When it comes to flooring systems, we believe we offer that, but there are a lot of excellent EWP on the market now for a wide range of uses.”

Powell also wants to see the industry focus on the customer. “It’s easy to get consumed in technical issues like the race to the strongest product,” he says. “But customers want us to be answering their questions, or delivering solutions to their problems. If we can do that while remaining competitive and productive, we’re laughing.”

As well as questions of span and taller buildings, those solutions include ‘eco’ credentials, which are already being answered by leading treatment companies in the form of low- and no-VOC and child-friendly applications of insecticides and anti-fungal agents, and also with EWP made from reclaimed timbers that come with a side-serving of history.

Asset management will also improve dramatically as BIM content expands. “If we put all of the components in the BIM model as the building is designed, then we can use that model for asset management later on,” says Mansell. “It will tell you when you need to recoat or replace washers in taps, what path a particular wire takes. And we can also use it for disassembly, because technically every nut and bolt, screw, piece of timber, every hole, every piece of wire should be represented in that model.

“Already, I can take a tablet out to site and, with the model loaded, I can set my reference point and go directly to a fixing point or a specific component within that structure. So we are definitely headed down this path, we’re just not doing it as quickly as some other countries are.”

Which brings us back to compliance.

As EWP are increasingly used in larger and taller structures, we are likely to face some of the issues that have dogged steel and concrete construction in recent years.

At this year’s Frame Australia, one speaker enthusiastically declared he could see a 10-year or more warranty on EWP buildings, but not who would offer and hold responsibility for that warranty.

One part of the problem lies with AS 1684 Residential Timber Framed Construction. The building code components are informative sections, not normative. If a builder, fabricator or supplier at some point in the construction process doesn’t comply with the standard, who then is responsible for the design life of the building? Who ends up accountable for subsequent issues? At the moment the answer is all too often the owner, and – especially in the residential market – those owners are pushing back.

It’s really a question for legislators, but Mansell has a suggestion to stop the situation arising: “It comes down to the importance of education,” he says.

“Suppliers and manufacturers are already engaged. Ideally, builders, developers and so on would see information sessions as part of their responsibility so they deliver a better product to the client at the end of the day. Though, I emphasise the owner then has a responsibility to maintain it to that standard. We all have to play a part. Not just one step through the process, all of us.”

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Image: Dorrigo Cork Memorial Medical Centre with its massive curved glulam beams. Courtesy Hyne Timber.