Mass timber isn’t ‘rocket science,’ says Nordic executive

Cross-laminated timber, also known as CLT, is gaining popularity in North America. Originally developed in the 1990s in Europe, the building material is popular overseas, but has progressed at a much slower pace in North America.

That is changing, according to Montreal-based CLT firm Nordic Structures. The firm’s projects range from the John W. Olver building at UMass Amherst to the Shawnee Mission School District Aquatic Center (pictured above) in Lenexa, Kansas. 

Here, David Croteau, the vice president in charge of operations and engineering at Nordic Structures, spoke with Construction Dive about the growing popularity of the material in the U.S. and Canada, his vision for the company and what he would say to developers hesitant about the material.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CONSTRUCTION DIVE: Talk about the company’s history. How did it get involved in CLT?

DAVID CROTEAU: We started in 1961 as a sawmill operation in Chibougamau, Quebec. 

We eventually produced our own I-joists, which started the engineered wood product business for us. It was more on the residential side of the construction business than nonresidential. 

In the early 1990s, we started to produce glulam, [or glue-laminated timber, a form of engineered wood] to go with our I-joists mainly to do headers above windows and doors. 

We realized there was potential to grow the nonresidential market. That’s where I got hired and started that division of Nordic Structures to look after nonresidential projects. 

In 2010, after a visit in Europe, we decided to move into the CLT business as well. CLT already existed in Europe, but not really in North America. So we were the first in North America to set up a plant and start to produce CLT. 

We had to do a fair amount of marketing and sales pitches to convince people to use that new product. But it’s not rocket science, it’s pretty straightforward.

What’s it like using CLT in the nonresidential market, especially as people may be hesitant about the technology?

Funny enough, I see the reaction a little bit differently. I think that there’s quite a lot of early adopters. All the big companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, they’re all building with mass timber for sustainability reasons right now. 

David Croteau

Courtesy of Nordic Structures

 

We also see a lot of big universities taking that approach as well. 

Right now we’re doing projects at Harvard and Princeton, and we completed projects at UMass and MSU. 

People are really looking at their carbon footprint when they build their new buildings now. It’s part of their evaluation process. 

And to be honest, I found it easier in the U.S. than it was in Quebec or Canada.

Why do you think adoption is easier in the U.S. today?

For a long time, U.S. building codes trailed Canada. 

Now, with the adoption of the 2021 International Building Code, which was originally proposed in 2019, CLT buildings as tall as 18 stories are allowed in the U.S. That’s even beyond the 12 stories still only allowed in Canada. 

Within just a short period of time, you can see the effect on the overall market now. People are less reluctant to move in with the project, knowing that the code is behind them.

There’s also an urgency now to reduce the carbon footprint for buildings. Mass timber is the only construction product that is carbon negative, versus concrete and steel. 

In the past, architects were trying to convince their clients to do their projects with mass timber. Now, everybody wants to be part of it. 

So it’s been going really well. Demand is getting bigger and bigger. The U.S. market is now very receptive to mass timber.

How would you convince people who were hesitant about CLT to give the material a shot?

I would talk about the added value that mass timber could bring to them. 

Sometimes big real estate players have a very tight market. They want rentable space, and space that needs to be different from the others. They want space they can get a higher revenue from because they have something totally different. 

Some developers see this opportunity and are now using it. It’s part of the conversation to potential tenants or users, that they’re doing their part for the environment. 

On top of that, it makes it beautiful. You don’t have to add a lot of embellishments or finishes to make it look good. You don’t have to hide it, it’s all exposed. 

And it reduces the overall duration of your project as well. So, I think it’s a win-win for everyone.

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