Australia has some of the most reliable EWP importers in the world and an increasing number of great manufacturers. So why are we still seeing non-compliant product? By Donyale Harrison

Stephen Chehab, director of Allied Forest Products, is on the phone. “Have you seen that photo?” he asks. “It’s doing the rounds. Hang on, I’ll send it to you.”

There’s a ping from my inbox and when I click, the picture (see below) is there: a second-storey floor system, with multiple I-joists snapped and snagging. There is a stencil on the side of the I-joist saying ASNZS 4357.0, referencing the standard for structural laminated veneer lumber (LVL), but this is anything but compliant. I use some language that my grandmother would have called unbecoming of a lady.

“Yep,” says Chehab.


There is an enormous amount of high-quality LVL and I-joist in homes around Australia doing the job it was designed for perfectly. But in recent years, supply issues have led to some smaller companies bringing in product that is not compliant and not fit for purpose.

TTN spoke with three players in the Australian EWP market: Leon Quinn, national sales and marketing manager for Tilling Timber and principal engineer George Dolezal from Meyer Timber – both of which firms are among the largest wholesalers of EWP in Australia and who run internal engineered design services – and Chehab, whose company distributes Metsä LVL and I-joist in NSW and Queensland. We discussed how this problem has arisen, how reputable brands avoid it, what the risks are and – recognising that 99% of the engineered wood product story is a positive one – what builders could be achieving if they were working with companies that had better reputations.

Chehab has some compassion for the team behind the failed floor. “The last two years of timber shortages caused some timber yards and carpenters to source their own EWP products from overseas rather than have their business foreclose,” he says. “It was a very difficult time for supply.”

He actually spoke with the carpenter who had installed that floor system. “He told me he did the take off and sent the quote out to three timber yards,” Chehab says. “The cheapest quote got the order and that was what he was supplied. He installed them and, unfortunately, the floor system failed. The quote was $300 cheaper than the other supplier, who would have supplied him with Metsä Finnjoist, which is very reputable. He’s out of pocket around $200,000 for that job.”

Rectification costs are an immediate problem for individual companies, but the negative effects of failed EWP such as LVL and I-joist go well beyond.

“Our concern is, we don’t want builders and consumers to lose faith in LVL or I-joist,” says Quinn. “Because if they start seeing LVL or I-joist of any brand failing and that gets shared around – and that photo was all over social media – at the end of the day, the whole industry loses. People lose trust and think ‘well, I’ll stick with a non-timber product.’”

Quinn says the risk to the parties involved in the build simply isn’t worth any savings. “If I’m a merchant and I’m buying LVL from a new supplier and I’m not confident in their certification and compliance, I am opening myself up to additional risk,” he says.

“So if anything goes wrong with the performance of that product – and we’ve seen it can – all parties are held jointly and severally responsible. When the insurance company or the law come after everyone involved in that chain, there are now fewer people because the merchant is also the importer, so that’s more responsibility and more cost to fall on them.”

Dolezal points out that some parts of the chain will be exempt from responsibility if another party has made a substitution that isn’t appropriate. “Remember, LVL doesn’t have a defined set of properties,” he says. “If you’re using LVL, the engineer is designing to the properties that the manufacturer is publishing. And those properties are different between manufacturers. So to the letter of law, you can’t take your bit of E13 LVL and substitute it when someone else’s bit of E13 LVL has been specified.”

Dolezal acknowledges that when there are supply issues with particular brands, it’s almost always possible to find a replacement, though this involves changes that must be checked either through software or design engineer, but cautions against thinking it’s like for like, even with known brands.

“The structural properties of LVL vary slightly, in general, but the nail plate-holding capacity of LVL can vary quite a bit between two E13 pieces of LVL from two different producers,” he says.

“The nail plate companies test for this and provide trustworthy, accurate design and nail plate information for all the LVL suppliers who are currently in their software. But if you make substitutions, they’re not responsible for any problems that arise from that.”

The concern for new importers who are bringing in packs of LVL from unknown manufacturers is that they don’t have the technical and specification resources behind them to back up the claims being made.

“They’re riding on the backs of span tables, or software from reputable suppliers,” says Dolezal. “And you can do that with a piece of MGP 10 or a piece of F5 timber because the properties are defined in the Australian standard. But in terms of LVL, there is a different set of properties.

“That becomes especially important when you go to roof trusses.”


All three suppliers understood that it’s been a difficult few years, between the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. They also emphasised that they are in no way suggesting a closed shop approach to supply. They’re importers themselves and know that bringing new supply into the chain is important.

“Some people write off all Chinese LVL as cheap,” says Chehab, “and that’s damning a lot of good suppliers for the bad work of others. We sourced very good Chinese product during the worst Covid shortages, from a mill that was formed by some old employees of Carter Holt Harvey.

“They replicated the quality control and testing processes that CHH use and that makes it very easy to get all the data required for third party testing and compliance and to cross-reference that data with the span tables, installation guides, fixing and cut out data that the mill produces. We had our engineers sign that all off and were further backed with a $40 million product liability insurance policy. We also make sure that all species used in our products are legally sourced from PEFC or FSC certified suppliers.”

Tilling and Meyer take even more multi-layered approaches. Dolezal went through the Meyer Timber process: “We have two senior timber engineers, Afzal Laphir and myself, that go through and audit all the quality data that comes from the mills. We also regularly visit the mills personally. In fact, we’re in Europe at the moment visiting suppliers we haven’t seen for a few years.

“On top of that, we have our own test lab in Victoria so when product comes in, we can pick out random pieces and test them. And on top of all that, at regular intervals we still get random product out of the racks and have it tested by an independent testing laboratory. That gives us a very high level of assurance as opposed to buying directly from a mill overseas where they might just rely on one certificate.”

Larger importers do have the advantage of more resources and, because their orders are larger, they are able to have more impact on the manufacturers they are working with.

“At Tilling, we have a reputation for being very conservative,” says Quinn. “And that’s true, we’re conservative and proactive. Our method is to reach up to the mill and to engage very closely with them right down to the way they lay up the veneers to make sure it meets our expectations when it comes to results and to third-party audits. That might mean making recommendations re their processes, but that’s the sort of close oversight and engagement we want from a private label manufacturer that is placing our name on its product.”

He points out that at a conservative estimate, there is more than $2 billion worth of Tilling product holding houses up across Australia. “That didn’t happen by accident,” Quinn says. “And it means we work to uphold that reputation. All the big, reputable distributors are similar in that we take this very seriously and will have a very conservative approach to what’s coming in.”

Quinn notes that there are reliable mid-sized companies that either work with their own in-house or contracted engineers or have strong relationships with suppliers of international renown that can provide reliable third-party audits for their product. He is clear that it isn’t only the biggest importers that are trustworthy.

“However,” Quinn cautions, “some new players don’t have the resources of those firms, but are still attempting to occupy the same market. Compare a business like ours, we have Craig Kay, Yuri Huerta and Jimmy Chang: in-house engineers furiously doing testing and all of these compliance activities to ensure that we’re getting the quality we need. Then look at a trader that obviously doesn’t have an engineer, can’t tell you what their audit system is and can’t satisfy you that their testing and quality assurance system is robust enough because they don’t have the resources. What is that grey area of risk you’re stepping into?”

That includes ethical as well as physical risk. Some products drive profits to places you would rather they not go, a situation that’s become very real in recent years.

“We moved Australia’s largest LVL supply chain out of Russia, and we’ve also committed to paying supplying mills higher rates to guarantee non-conflict timber,” Quinn says.

Tilling was by no means alone in having to change quickly. “We had to make the difficult but important decision to cease purchases of Russian spruce and larch species veneers used in our LVL,” says Chehab.  “Luckily, this led to our wonderful partnership with Metsä. All of the trees that Metsä use in their LVL production are from their own plantations. Every stick they produce can be tracked back to the tree it was cut from. All of their veneers are PEFC, FSC and ESG compliant. They batch test approximately every hour of production in their in-house laboratory. They are audited regularly by Eurofins, a third-party auditor. And all of this data is made available to Allied Forest Products.”


“Nobody wants to hold extra risk,” says Quinn. “Building inspectors are becoming quite intolerant of any variation that concerns or startles them. Right now in particular, they have no appetite for being on a site and asking ‘What the hell is that? Where’s the justification for that?’

“So all of the consumer warranties and similar that follow the SmartFrame brand, or branded product from other leading wholesalers – those are deeply trusted warranties and certainties that flow with those products.

“And that’s not just because people are confident in the legal compliance, it’s about the strength and conservatism that follows the brand. We are all very protective of our brands and certifiers know that.”

The three suppliers admitted that caution from certifiers can make introducing new products difficult, even when they come with comprehensive and transparent testing data.

“Very few certifiers are engineers,” says Dolezal. “We quite often have certifiers not sure about certain products and asking questions. Historically, that’s meant that when we have a new product, we give them all the information and go through a process.”

He shares the example of Simpson Strong Tie Truss Screws, which Meyer market. “When they first came out, we visited certifiers individually and had a talk-through with them, showing them the product before we brought it into the market. So it wasn’t something that just arrived,” Dolezal says.

“We’ve done this regularly when we’re trialling new products: we target a frame and truss plant or a merchant who has a good relationship with the builder and then talk with the builder, find out who their building certifier or surveyor is and actually go out to talk with them before we start the trial. Because then they’re fully aware of what’s happening. And you can quite often overcome any hesitancy or any issues they’ve got with it before you put new product into the market.”

Even then, there are still sometimes problems. “As recently as four months ago, Afzal had a certifier down in Victoria who was questioning the use of Truss Screws, and we’ve been selling them since 2016,” says Dolezal. “Even a product that has sold hundreds of thousands of units into the market can have issues. But the benefit for us is that we have that history behind us. So whenever there is anything unusual happening, there will already be a tested solution in place, which has had multiple people agree on it and which has been standing for years. So it’s easier to give an assurance that everything will be OK.”

For suppliers wanting to bring new products into roof or floor truss applications, Dolezal says that it is up to the manufacturer to get the product into the nail plate company software. “If those suppliers approach the nail plate companies, those companies will then give them the process,” Dolezal says. “It is expensive, because it involves passing that process for all three companies, but that’s a reassurance in itself as spending that money is something that an opportunistic trading house won’t go and do. Because they just want to make as much money as they can while they can and then they walk away.”

The carpenter who spoke with Chehab has learned his lesson the hard way. “He’s installed 15 houses with I-joists from another importer that can’t prove compliance and the certifier won’t sign the carpentry work off,” Chehab says. “He was told by that yard that the I-joists were 100% conforming. He’s now getting lots of excuses of why they can’t hand over compliance documentation.

“That’s why we’re happy with our current arrangement being backed by a global supply manufacturing company. Metsä Group was founded in 1947 and employs over 9000 people so they’re a good partner to have in supply assurance. As for Allied, we’re a timber family. We started our business in 2009 and have built a team with over 200 combined years of experience. Kieran and I were born into the timber industry. Our father started in 1972 and mum’s side of the family has been sawmilling since 1836.”

In addition to wanting to protect the family name, Chehab has found direct benefits to Metsä product being included in popular software packages. “It makes things easy for our customers. They love the product knowledge and service we offer and that we can produce the necessary compliance data on the spot when asked. We’re completely transparent and that’s why our customers have full trust in us,” he says.

“In NSW in particular, that’s vital. We’ve seen first-hand floor systems failing and certifiers not signing jobs off. And this will become more common – Building Commissioner David Chandler has put a team together to look closely at the compliance of new freestanding residential houses. We were invited to give a presentation on EWP compliance to his team recently and they are taking it very seriously.”

Several of the biggest distributors including Tilling and Meyer have their own software packages that provide part of their sales package. “Builders have always had the confidence, as have any approving authorities, to look upon the outputs and directions of our software and know they’ll deliver a bankable engineering outcome,” says Quinn.

“In a way, that’s defined our business. We don’t sell on how much per lineal metre, we sell on a package: here’s all the timber, the brackets, the pre-cut holes, everything you need in a kit at one box price. And here’s the design that underpins that system. We deliver that to site and we’re confident you’ll be happy with the performance on site, the buildability and the in-situ performance and price, and the certifier will be happy, too.”

Even with the best systems in the world, there can be problems. “We do sometimes find discrepancies,” says Dolezal. “That makes us dive in deeper and try and work out exactly what’s happening. We had a case with a slightly lower value in some of the structural properties than expected. So we talked to the mill and learned they harvested from a different area, because they had an extremely bad winter and they couldn’t reach the area they usually log. In that new area, the trees had different properties because they’re growing in different soils, and that made a difference in the layup of the LVL.

“Saying that, all those values were still above the minimum. Whereas if you just do one round of testing, it might meet the requirements, but that sample might be very much on the high side of the variability and that company might end up supplying product that’s a lot lower than what they’re advertising. But no one has any idea because they’re not doing those continual checks.”


“It comes back to protecting the industry,” says Quinn. “The industry has spent years pushing for governments and councils to have a timber-first policy. We’ve worked to have timber’s environmental and sustainable qualities recognised and we’ve developed strong relationships with builders. We need to be focused on selling the positives of timber: its carbon storage, its buildability, the fact that it performs so well at every stage of the process, for the builder, for the fabricator and for the homeowner.

“We don’t need to be taking time out from that story to explain how something that shouldn’t have been used has failed.”

He’s excited about the possibilities for multi-res builds. “We’re jostling for position against steel in multi res,” Quinn says. “It’s an efficiency game. We need to come up with very efficient solutions, because if you can save $50-80 on one unit, and it’s there’s 100 units, there’s soon thousands saved.

“Timber’s environmental story is great, but when it comes to multi res, they’ve got to build it to a price. We have an advantage in that builders like timber, but if a builder gets used to steel, then it’s up to us to convince them to move back. And that’s a different proposition.”

That package of trust, products and services that Quinn mentioned earlier is a key determinant of choice. “We’ve had builders say to us, ‘you’re not the cheapest, but I trust what you do.’ All of the other wholesalers that design have builders who trust their systems, too,” he says.

“It almost becomes a partnership. We’re guaranteeing to that builder, via a merchant, that our package is going to do what we said it would. Not just our EWP, but 170 different pieces of connections, nails, I-joist, LVL, plywood, web stiffeners and more. We’re warranting that whole solution – promising it will be a great fit for what they’re doing. And thanks to those compliance processes we’ve discussed, we can do that with as much confidence for product we import as for the I-joist line we manufacture in Victoria.”

That confidence is being supported by a review of the Australian standard for LVL and the development of one for I-joist.

“These will help to create a level playing field for importers,” says Dolezal. “We’re all for competition as long as that product is safe for use in its intended application. We’re trying to weed out opportunistic suppliers who bring in something and then three months later close their business, leaving the family-owned F&T plant that used their product responsible for any failures.

“As a rule of thumb, if someone is bringing in a new product (as opposed to a reputable product that is established overseas and can demonstrate meeting Australian standards) in under six months, then it’s very unlikely they’ve gone through all the steps needed.”

Admittedly, it can still be slow to convince builders to use new products. “The classic case would be our meyBRACE product that we started three years ago. It’s a great product, but we still expect 12 to 18 months before we start getting a consistent order pattern for it,” Dolezal says.

“We saw the same pattern with our cassette products, which are a bit ahead of meyBRACE. That’s the whole prefab world: it’s slowly starting to gain momentum as builders realise they’re spending too much time on site and the advantages of bringing as much work back into the factory as possible become clear. It’s not just that you get a better product, it’s more comfortable and it’s safer for your workers.”

There has been one surprising application for meyBRACE: “We’re just starting to go into the portal shed space,” says Dolezal. “We’ve just completed our first two portal frame sheds in South Australia. They’re 10m spans by 20m long and it’s a real alternative to steel sheds. Because we’ve found that in more rural areas where there’s a bit more land, people build a house and then they want to put up a shed. Doing them in timber has two massive advantages: firstly it’s immediately cooler in summer and warmer in winter, but then if you want to box off a section of it and turn it into an office or accommodation for your teens, it’s a lot easier in timber building.”

All three emphasised the need for education in the market. “One yard told me that a few carpenters of his are actually asking for ‘cheap Chinese joists’ so that’s what he gives them,” Chehab says. “Its our responsibility as EWP importers to educate these guys. We need to empower merchants to tell those carpenters ‘it still needs to be compliant. You still need to be able to get your certifier to sign the job off.’”

Allied has recently partnered with James Hardie as their wholesale distributor and added a direct-to-site wholesale floor system and cladding system service.

“We have multiple detailers as well as an engineer to assist when necessary, and our products are also available in Hyne Design,” says Chehab, “which has had real advantages. We’ve recently moved some steel frame producers over to our EWP and that transition was very easy for them. Most are offering a hybrid model now. We sent our technical man out to site, downloaded Hyne Design for them and gave them a lesson in how to use the software. Done.”

The switch to Metsa Finnjoist has been serendipitous. Chehab says, “The size to strength ratio is amazing and the price is good. We’re finding our customers can compete with non-compliant 300×63 and offer a far superior product.”

He’s also seeing the change in the prefab space slowly gaining pace. “We’ve been working closely with a few Design for Manufacturing and Assembly companies in the school space recently,” says Chehab. “We supplied LVL, fibre cement, plywood and particleboard into the Wee Waa High School project. Our LVL has also been used in many heritage building refurbishments throughout Australia. One recent project was the former Department of Education building on Bridge Street, Sydney, now known the luxury hotel Capella Sydney. The original hardwood joists were to be replaced.

“When we have our product specified on a heritage building, I get so much joy. I often ask myself, did my great-great-great-grandfather cut this hardwood that we’re replacing? Will my great-great-great-grandchild replace our LVL one day? I certainly hope so.”

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Main image: Afzal Laphir (left) and George Dolezal watching LVL being tested at the quality lab of one of Meyer Timber’s European suppliers. (Courtesy Meyer Timber)