Oregon company sees bright future in tall wooden buildings

An example of the Mass Plywood Panel developed by Freres Lumber Co. of Lyons, Ore. The company is constructing a $23 million plant to produce the panels.

Freres Lumber Co. of Lyons, Ore., has received a $250,000 U.S. Forest Service grant that will help it gear up for what the company sees as an emerging market: Using wood products in tall building construction.

The company will apply the money to buying and installing a computer numeric code (CNC) milling machine for its $23 million Mass Plywood Panel plant that is under construction in Linn County.

Mass plywood panels, like cross-laminated timbers, show strong potential for use in tall wooden buildings. Engineered timber panels can be used for walls and floors, beams and more, and are touted as a carbon-neutral replacement for concrete and steel. Tall wooden buildings are under construction in Portland, and Oregon State University’s forestry and engineering programs recently teamed with the University of Oregon’s architecture program to form the TallWood Design Institute at the OSU campus. It’s the nation’s first research partnership to focus on the advance of structural wood products.

The Freres company’s Mass Plywood Plant, set to open in January 2018, will be capable of producing panels that are up to 24 inches thick, 12 feet wide and 48 feet long. The CNC machine uses computer-aided design and machining technology to saw door and window spaces in the panels, which are made from layers of veneer.

Rob Freres, executive vice president, believes his company’s product is a better option than Cross Laminated Timbers, which are made from joined pieces of lumber.

Mass plywood panels require less wood fiber, weigh less and are more versatile, he said.

“It does have great promise,” Freres said.

He said veneer for the panels can be produced from small trees, the “suppressed understory” that can be harvested from public forests without the controversy that accompanies old-growth logging.

The panel plant, under construction halfway between Lyons and Mill City, also provides a way to revitalize rural Oregon, Freres said. It will use “cranes and robots” to move the large panels, but will employ 20 people per shift, he said.

“By adding value to the products we’re making today, it’s making their jobs more secure,” because the technology and the new product move the company away from the commodity market and give it more control over pricing, Freres said.

“It is exciting,” he said. “We’re part of a very cyclical business, and as such we’ve been very conservative financially. We’ve internally financed this so we don’t have bankers keeping us awake at night.”

While confident about the company’s move, Freres said Oregon’s timber industry as a whole won’t recover until changes are made in the management of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management timber. The company has bought public timber since 1936 and the Forest Service and BLM have been on a “thinning regime” for the past 25 years, he said. The company adjusted its manufacturing processes to make use of what’s available and to stay competitive, he said.

“All of this takes forest management and the harvest of trees,” Freres said.

Recommended for you