Oregon mill is first certified to make cross-laminated timber

Eric Mortenson/Capital Press D.R. Johnson Co., the Oregon mill run by sisters Valerie Johnson, left, and Jodi Westbrooks, is the first American company certified to make cross-laminated timbers.

PORTLAND — Valerie Johnson acknowledges it’s been a wild ride. Just 22 months after hearing about cross-laminated timber panels, her D.R. Johnson mill in Southern Oregon is making them, has partnered with state money and university researchers, bought new equipment and appears poised for a breakout that many think could revitalize Oregon’s timber industry.

On Sept. 10 in Portland, Gov. Kate Brown announced D.R. Johnson is the first American company certified to make cross-laminated timber panels. Certification by the American Plywood Association and the American National Standards Institute assures the panels, called CLT, can be used in building construction.

Brown made the announcement at Best Fest, an annual conference that features clean-tech innovation. The conference organizer, Oregon BEST, is a quasi-public state agency that provides development grants and links entrepreneurs with a network of university researchers.

Oregon BEST provided $150,000 for CLT research at Oregon State University and will lend D.R. Johnson $100,000 for a new production line. The governor said the state is sponsoring a CLT design competition, with $200,000 in funding and services going to the winner.

Speaking from a podium made from cross-laminated timbers, Brown said she hopes the technology will “fuel the economic engine in rural Oregon.” Cross laminated panels are strong, cost competitive, much quicker than steel and concrete to install, aesthetically pleasing and made from a renewable resource, the governor said.

“We are perfectly suited for this work,” Brown said. “We grow the most desirable species. If this product is going to hit the market, it made more sense for it to emerge from our state than any other.”

Ethan Martin, an engineer with the industry group WoodWorks, said cross laminated timbers are “like Glulam (beams) and plywood got together and had a baby.”

The process can produce wooden panels 8- to 10-feet wide, up to 20 inches thick and 64 feet long, he said. Panels are formed by bonding layers of dimensional lumber such as two-by-fours.

They can be hauled to a construction site and quickly installed in a manner Martin and others jokingly compare to assembling products from Ikea, or like giant Legos.

The product’s environmental impact is much less than other construction methods, Martin said.

“Every other material exudes carbon, except wood,” he said. “Wood is the only product that sequesters carbon.”

CLT construction has been used for high-rise buildings in Europe and Canada, but is limited in the U.S. to six stories, Martin said. The limitations come from building laws adopted in 1899 and 1910 in response to tragic tenement fires.

Martin said that’s changing, and the technology is gaining acceptance. A 19-story wooden building is being designed in Portland, he said. A four-story commercial building, Albina Yard, is under construction in Portland and is the first project built with domestically produced CLT panels.

Valerie Johnson, who became co-owner of the family company after her father died, said the rapid CLT development has the business in a “euphoric” state.

D.R. Johnson, based in Riddle, Ore., south of Roseburg, produces Glulam beams, but had no experience with CLT panels. At this point, the company is producing panels that are 24 feet long, but plans to make longer ones as new equipment comes into play.

Johnson said of the company’s experienced Glulam employees have been reassigned to produce the panels, and people were hired to take the vacated spots. All told, the company has added five jobs so far due to CLT production.

Several project developers are showing strong interest in cross-laminated timbers, however, and the company may have to add a second shift to fill orders, Johnson said.

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