Advantage Healthy Economy

OSU Advantage: Wood Panel Promise

Not since the development of plywood has a material innovation so thoroughly changed the construction process. “It’s an entirely new technology,” says Lech Muszynski. “It revolutionizes the way we build with wood.”

Caption about composite wood
In cross-laminated timber construction, massive timbers are glued together into panels that function as super-fast, super-strong building materials.

IN 2004, WHEN LECH MUSZYNSKI first heard about cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction, he thought it was a terrible idea. Massive timbers glued together to form the elements of a structure seemed to grate against the trend toward thin, light, resilient structures.

However, his opinion was about to change. The associate professor of wood science at Oregon State University saw how fast complex structures could be built with CLT panels. He learned that a full-sized, seven-story CLT building survived nearly unscathed after being shaken on the world’s largest earthquake table in Kobe, Japan.

Not since the development of plywood, he says, has a material innovation so thoroughly changed the construction process. “It’s an entirely new technology,” he adds. “It revolutionizes the way we build with wood.”

A decade later, Muszynski coordinates a team of Oregon State researchers in the colleges of Forestry and Engineering that, with funding from Oregon BEST ($150,000) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture ($725,000), is working with the forest products industry to turn CLT into a boost for rural economies. He’s also collaborating with the DR Johnson Lumber Co. of Riddle, Oregon, to test and certify the first U.S.-made CLT panels for the construction industry.

“Currently, in the U.S, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg situation with CLT,” Valerie Johnson, president of DR Johnson, told the Portland Business Journal last fall. “There is significant and rapidly growing interest in using CLT, but the cost to import panels from Canada or Europe for construction is not cost competitive.”

Among the topics that Muszynski and his colleagues are investigating are the integrity of wood-adhesive bonds, the use of Oregon wood varieties, the performance of CLT panels in seismic tests and the potential for using lumber from small logs harvested in forest restoration operations.

In 2010, a team composed of Arijit Sinha, Anthony Kramer and Andre Barbosa in the colleges of Forestry and Engineering produced CLT prototype panels made of hybrid poplar. “Poplar CLT was substantially lighter but still made minimum specifications for structural CLT,” they reported.

Demand for CLT far exceeds global production, which currently stands at about 1 million cubic meters annually in Europe and Canada. Projected demand in the United States alone is 2 to 6 million cubic meters, based on a 5 to 10 percent penetration rate into residential and non-residential building markets, according to FP Innovations, a nonprofit forest research firm.

During a sabbatical in 2011, Muszynski visited CLT manufacturing plants in Austria, Italy and Switzerland. Although they were located in an area about the size of Oregon, he found that they were all successful in serving construction markets on the Continent. “By the European model, we should be able to have at least five plants just in Oregon,” Muszynski says. “There is enormous interest among engineers and architects to use CLT.”

Before coming to Oregon State in 2004, Muszynski was a post-doctoral researcher and assistant scientist with the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.