In August, operations will begin at the first mass timber manufacturing facility in the United States, introducing a new product and new occupations to central Arkansas.
Headquartered in British Columbia, Canada, in the city of Penticton, Structurlam was established in 1962 and is the leading mass timber manufacturer in North America. The company announced in December 2019 that it was expanding its mass timber operations to the U.S. with a plant in Conway, Arkansas, investing $90 million to purchase, retrofit, and equip a former steel plant and create 130 new jobs.
Structurlam CEO Hardy Wentzel has worked in the engineered wood products industry for four decades. Since taking the helm at Structurlam three years ago, he has been focused on growing mass timber usage in North America. At the same time, demand for mass timber has increased dramatically over the past five years, driven by building code changes and a desire to “build a better way.”
“Structurlam is almost a 60-year-old company, so we are very deep in timber engineering and mass timber manufacturing,” Wentzel said. “We’re bringing that know-how to Conway.”
Mass timber is a category of building construction featuring structural laminated wood components for walls, roofs, floors, beams, and columns. The Conway plant will produce two mass timber products: Cross Laminated Timber, or CrossLam® CLT and glued laminated timber, or GlulamPLUS®.
CrossLam CLT® is a multi-layer mass timber product that is carbon negative and uses wood exclusively from sustainably managed forests. It serves as the floor, roof, and shear-wall elements in the buildings. Structurlam made its first CLT panel in Conway on April 14.
GlulamPLUS® laminated timber is the framework or bones of the building. It is used for columns and beams that compose the structural system. The GlulamPLUS® beams are combined with CrossLam CLT® panels to construct a mass timber building project. The glulam line will be commissioned in mid-August, marking the beginning of operations for the Conway plant.
Walmart is the first customer of Structurlam’s Conway facility. The world’s largest retailer plans to use more than 1.1 million cubic feet of Arkansas-grown and Arkansas-produced mass timber in its new Home Office campus in Bentonville, making it the largest campus project in the U.S. using mass timber.
Structurlam’s presence in Conway connects three distinct industries in three parts of the state: agriculture, manufacturing, and corporate retail. The company will source southern yellow pine trees from south Arkansas and manufacture them into mass timber in its central Arkansas plant to build a corporate headquarters in northwest Arkansas.
Agriculture is Arkansas’s leading industry with timber making up a third of the overall income. The state is an abundant producer of southern yellow pine, which will be used to produce Structurlam’s GlulamPLUS® and CrossLam® CLT products for broad distribution throughout the southern United States. Structurlam selected Conway for its proximity to 19 million acres of sustainable forestland that covers more than half of the state’s total land area.
“The wood basket for buying softwood lumber for a plant like ours is fantastic in Arkansas,” Wentzel said. “You’ve got many sawmills that make the products that we need to convert to mass timber. Arkansas was the perfect choice from a raw material standpoint.”
Wentzel also cited Conway’s location as a reason Structurlam expanded its operations here. The new plant is located close to transportation corridors that reach large southern and eastern markets.
“Conway being so centrally located in the state of Arkansas makes transportation access ideal. In a 500-mile radius of Conway, you have over 70 million people living in the U.S. In terms of trucking distances, you are six hours to Dallas, eight hours to Atlanta, and not far from Chicago when headed north.
“Conway is also very proximal to the buildings that we’re going to be supplying for Walmart’s Home Office. There are many good connections – from raw material to proximity to markets to proximity to Bentonville – that made Conway so important to us.”
Other considerations for choosing Conway included an available workforce to fill the 130 positions at the plant. Because mass timber jobs have not been available in the U.S. historically, Structurlam has a full training and orientation process in place for new hires and has partnered with local institutions on vocational training.
“This is a fully automated plant, so there is a lot of digital technology running the machinery,” Wentzel said. “However, we still have to have skilled carpentry tradespeople in the plant to finish the fabrication of these mass timber products and attach the steel connectors as well. We’re confident we can hire the right people and then train them to make sure that we’re passing on our Structurlam advantage to these new team members.”
The leadership team is in place in Structurlam’s Conway plant: Randy Grace is the general manager, Jamie Stires is the HR manager, Hayes Anthony is the operations manager, and Jody Doak is the startup leader and maintenance manager.
“By the time the Conway plant opens in August, we will have hired the compliment of 130 people,” Wentzel said. “Our culture of respect, service, integrity, execution, and thriving together is alive and well in Conway. I’m really proud of our people who are driving that for us locally.”
“Mass timber is the way of the future.”
Wentzel said there are several reasons to use mass timber over steel and concrete, namely the environmental impact.
Wood as a building material is a renewable resource that can be regenerated through sustainable forestry practices. Arkansas has a strong stewardship program in place to protect timber as a renewable resource, planting 1.6 trees for every tree that is harvested. Structurlam uses only wood that is sustainably harvested.
Harvested timber retains its carbon through the life of the building, while reforestation through replanting increases the carbon capture rate by as much as a factor of two times over the same acreage.
“Mass timber is definitely what we need to improve the climate change challenges our planet faces,” Wentzel said. “The environmental footprint of wood versus steel and concrete is significant, and the benefits toward wood are significant.
“Wood products sequester carbon. And when you grow a new tree, you take more carbon out of the atmosphere, and you sequester it in the wood.”
In addition to reducing a building’s carbon footprint, the production of mass timber components consumes less energy. By some estimates, wood conversion is as much as five times more efficient than cement for concrete and up to 20 times more energy efficient than the production of steel.
Wentzel said mass timber also makes the building process easier. Compared to traditional steel and concrete, mass timber construction compresses the building project schedule by moving much of the on-site labor to the factory. Once on-site, it is more about simple assembly than construction.
As a fully integrated system supplier, Structurlam delivers the mass timber building system ready to assemble with all connecting hardware and accessories. Mass timber solutions can accelerate production schedules by as much as 25%. Building code changes now permit mass timber structures to go up to 18 stories in the U.S., making it an attractive option for large, non-residential facilities.