Leading Australian suppliers share the different ways they’ve delivered to their customers during EWP supply difficulties.
Complex problems usually require complex solutions, which is why the response to the shortage of many engineered wood products (particularly LVL) since the advent of Covid has taken multiple forms.
Whether thanks to Chinese production shutdowns, soaring shipping costs, losing stock to Northern Hemisphere markets or the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some of the previously high-demand EWP coming into Australia has been much less available over the past two years. At the same time, building demand has been intense.
Suppliers have been squeezed in the middle, chasing product and managing customer needs. What’s emerged has been some clever ways of permanently solving the problem, from new manufacture to innovative use and managing relationships.
“In 2020 we made the strategic decision to invest in our own I-joist production,” says Leon Quinn, national sales and marketing manager at Tilling Timber. “It was a significant investment, but a much-needed one to underpin the necessary volume for the industry moving forward.”
That plan was put into action with the commission of a new I-joist plant to manufacture SmartJoist at Tilling’s Kilsyth, Victoria branch.
“This is a significant change for us,” Quinn says. “It’s been about two years in the making, the planning and implementation. We wanted to have more production capacity and more flexibility in what we produce and how we produce it.
“And we also wanted to see some more manufacturing and the jobs associated with that coming back to Australia.”
After Carter Holt Harvey closed its South Australian plant in 2018, Wesbeam was the only remaining I-joist manufacturer in Australia. “Australian EWP supply was seriously impacted when CHH pulled out,” says Quinn. “They withdrew their I-joist and between 40,000 and 50,000m3 of Hyspan LVL from the Australian market very quickly. And then Covid and all the follow-on issues associated with it followed.
“The timber community needs to keep bringing solutions to the market, or risk losing some of it to steel. So we strategised about where we could get the most for our investment. I-joist was a clear winner. The company’s SmartJoist range is well known and supported by huge design and technical support teams.”
The new plant has been designed with an inherent ability to modify its output.
“This works both ways,” Quinn says. “We’re using the latest technology equipment, which gives us a lot of flexibility, so we can take large LVL billets up to 1.2m wide and cut them into the sizes we need for flanges. This gives us the potential to custom-make I-joists for commercial projects that require specific properties or sizes, allowing us to expand beyond our usual residential market.
“At the same time, the set-up means that, if we need to, we can change our inputs to meet changing conditions. The Kilsyth production line offers us more security because we can quickly adjust inputs if and where necessary.
Because Tilling has its own engineering and in-house manufacturing testing, it is able to respond quickly to changes in materials and sizes. This also opens up a range of options to supply to larger builds.
The machinery comes from several suppliers, with a lot of it being fabricated by MPB Engineering in Dandenong. “So we have a local manufacturer for that, as well,” says Quinn.
“It’s a very positive story to tell our trading partners; that now have access to made-in-Australia SmartJoist.
“This new production underpins ongoing growth in this space and brings much-needed supply security to the market.”
Tilling has been one of the biggest EWP suppliers in the Australian market for a long time and Quinn admits he’s never seen as many difficulties hit the sector at the one time before.
“Before Covid and the geopolitical upheavals thanks to Russia, we saw ourselves as the company who could always say ‘yes’ to supply,” he says. “It’s over two years in the making, but we are very pleased that we made this decision early, and put the plan into motion.
“The new line gives us more control and help to underpin our growth over the next five to 10 years. We want to keep investing in our industry: that this investment comes with additional local jobs is a bonus.”
“For Meyer Timber, getting through the tough times has been all about the overall service we’ve been able to offer our customers,” says Afzal Laphir, principal engineer at Meyer Timber.
“Where we’ve had shortages, we haven’t told our customers to go away, we’ve given them alternatives to get their job done promptly with what’s available.”
George Dolezal, also principal engineer at Meyer Timber, agrees. “Our customers have been coming up against a lot of roadblocks. We’ve been innovating to help them achieve that build, get their floor system… We’ve worked hard to be the one link in the chain that they don’t have to worry about.”
This innovation has taken several forms. The first is meyBRACE, an LVL-based bracing solution that provides high lateral capacities.
“We came up with this pre-Covid,” says Laphir, “as an economical alternative to steel bracing. In fact, Covid somewhat negated this benefit, but we realised that even then, there was still strong demand for it.”
The fact meyBRACE was almost as strong as steel and much lighter attracted engineers to the product, as well as builders looking to remove steel from a project. Laphir and Dolezal note that being able to drop steel out of a build is strongly appreciated by their customers. Not only does it make connections easier and better, it lowers follow-on costs such as cranes.
“And you only have to deal with the one supplier,” says Dolezal. “So if there are any issues, it’s clear who’s responsible. One major benefit of the meyBRACE is its suitability for difficult circumstances. We supplied it for a build on Macleay Island in Queensland, as part of a package that included meyJOIST, meySPAN13 and GL17C ridge beams – everything had to go over on barges, so the fact this was much lighter than steel saved the builder a lot of money.”
The meyBRACE-supported portal frames were prefabricated and the structure went up quickly. “Sadly, he missed the window to get a roof on before the rains set in, so there’s some weathering on that frame but it is still fine structurally and looks great in the finished build,” Dolezal says.
“The other thing is that because those portal frames are designed to take the full bracing loads of the structure, the internal layout was quite modular and could be moved and changed up to the last minute with minimal adjustment to the external structure. So he could have swapped the order of the rooms or added an ensuite without needing to re-do the whole engineering design.”
Laphir also recently supplied the product into a difficult build: “I had an unusual request from a builder to supply our meyBRACE timber portal to fit within an already installed wall frame and floor system,” he says.
The project engineer had specified a steel truss brace, but this couldn’t be sourced in time because the height of the wall was non-standard. “We ended up supplying the columns only, pre-fabricated as usual with stiffeners and pre-drilled holes to receive screws that form the knee joint,” says Laphir. “These columns were fixed into as-built floor beams to complete the meyBRACE 3640 to the satisfaction of the builder. In fact, it solved more than one problem: we also saved him the trouble of connecting a timber beam to the originally specified steel truss brace. The timber column that formed the meyBRACE gave a convenient face to connect this timber beam using standard joist hangers. The site supervisor told us ‘we want more of this!’ because of the ease of the meyBRACE.”
Meyer Timber’s engineering team has come up with other solutions specifically to deal with recent shortages, including fabricating their own wind beams in house. “They’re not high-tech,” says Dolezal, “We’re just getting pieces of 90 by 35 pine, putting glue on top, and building them up one by one, but because the forces are working in the horizontal direction, the glueline isn’t critical, what matters is the thickness of the beam.”
“They can have up to seven laminates,” adds Laphir, “and while they’re not as sophisticated in the glueline engineering as glulam, they do this job very well and they free up LVL and I-joist for use in more essential applications.”
Delivering more product to customers with the same amount of LVL has been key for Meyer Timber’s recent innovation. “We’re always talking about new concepts,” says Laphir. “How can we improve things? How can we do better? Or how can we eat into the market better, both for us and for timber as a whole? We won’t die wondering.”
The solutions have even extended to slow moving stock: Meyer Timber has been supplying a customer with I-joist offcuts for use as lintels in builds, replacing LVL, which can then be used in more critical applications and making use of short lengths of I-joist that aren’t really useful in floor systems.
“A lot of ideas end up on the floor very quickly,” says Dolezal. “And some get through testing and then end up on the floor, but we just keep looking for solutions so our customers can keep building. As the saying puts it, if you don’t keep going forwards, you’re actually going backwards.”
Ashley Wright’s family has been selling timbers since 1853. “My Dad and I spun this business out of the old family business when it closed in 1998,” he says. “Compared to Tilling and Meyer Timber, we’re a little squirt, but one backed up by five generations of experience, expertise and close relationships with our international suppliers.”
Remarkably, Wright Forest Products has made it through the last few years without major disruptions. “That’s mostly down to the fact we purchase from a core of suppliers with whom we’ve cultivated strong relationships, going back many years. It keeps us at the front of the queue,” Wright says.
One of those core products is Pölkky glulam from Finland. “I first visited there about 2000,” says Wright, “and I saw the Finns had put gigantic amounts of investment into technology and processing. I said to myself, Australian builders would absolutely love to get their hands on some of these products.”
It’s been a process. He decided to start importing Pölkky posts and beams, which are ACQ pressure-treated to H3 or H4 depending on end use, as well as Lunawood thermowood in multiple lines including cladding. “Neither was really available here at the time and so neither was covered by the standard or the NCC,” Wright says. Instead, he began with small batches that were trialled under local conditions, cautiously using European standards as a basis for determining the equivalent local grade.
“We’ve been selling these products Australia-wide for 15 years now and there’s never been a failure,” he says. “So we’re quite comfortable it meets the fit-for-purpose test.”
Pölkky timber’s ACQ treatment is supplied by Koppers and the high-pressure application sees it penetrate through all the sapwood, making it highly suitable for external applications.
“It adds to the cost, because it requires a longer drying process than a LOSP treatment,” says Wright. “But our customers have builders wanting timber for their higher-end and architect-designed projects where they need both aesthetics and reliable strength. We can recommend this product with confidence.
“My personal expertise in timber has always focused on outdoor timbers. I’ve seen a lot of inappropriate choices over the years, then there was a time when people tried not to use it externally. Now the market has come full circle to celebrating visual timber in high-end builds and we can offer a product with excellent durability that’s guaranteed to stay straight. I’ve even used it in my own home.”
The other feature that has been driving designers towards Pölkky is that the treated board is a rich dark-honey-brown in colour, rather than the green of many other treated timbers. “To my knowledge, we’re the only people selling brown treated timber,” Wright says. “The customers just love it. Because it’s different. You can give it a clear coating and it is good to go!”
As with any timber used in an external application, Pölkky still requires good design. “Things like eaves and some weather protection for sunlight, wetting and drying give the timber a very long life expectancy,” says Wright. “This product can be directly exposed to the weather but needs to be painted or to have a good quality coating or it will weather and deteriorate. The design of a job is really critical to get a result that’s going to last forever, as is really skilful installation – not leaving areas where there can be failures.”
Wright’s main customers are large independent merchants who specialise in delivering quality timbers to professional builder clients. They’ve talked with him about the projects that Pölkky has been bought for.
“It opens up opportunities of using very large posts and big beams that can span long distances,” he says. “A lot of the big tract housing builders like Metricon incorporate it into their designs because we have the sizes and lengths that suit their needs. But the main market is architectural design builds, especially rural and seaside homes where you need that hardiness as well as the spans. It’s also suitable for all sorts of commercial applications, including health and childcare, because the treatment is ACQ.”
Wright carries large stocks so that any delays won’t impact his customers. “That helped us with the shipping issues and the fluctuating prices over recent years,” he says, “but on the whole, the trust we built with our suppliers meant we had very few issues. People here were shocked. They would ring up and say ‘Have you got that? Really? I don’t have to wait 18 months for it?’ They were amazed when we’d say, ‘No, we can get it to you tomorrow.’”
Wright makes light of this, but there has been a lot of work on his part to make sure these imported products are acceptable under the various Australian building codes as certified performance solutions.
“We would like to be bringing in more products from these bigger markets where they have the money to do more in the way of product development and testing,” Wright says. “There is a move, I believe, in terms of the BCC and Australian standards for harmonisation of some of the rules. If we can use more of the data from testing and standards in Europe or the UK, that will open the doors for Australian builders to have a lot better choice of products that haven’t typically been available here.”
Until then, Wright errs on the side of caution, converting down from European and English strength ratings to the comparable Australian GL rating.
“On the upside, we have the sizes and lengths the factory in Finland manufactures specifically for us here in Australia,” says Wright. “So they’re the metric sizes and sections that we use here domestically, which makes them fully interchangeable with other products that are available in the market. It’s all about making things as easy as we can for our customers.”
Image caption: Tilling’s new I-joist facility at Kilsyth will be able to adapt to changing materials and will also be able to manage custom sizes