COLUMBIA FALLS — After gaining widespread appeal across Europe and Canada as a cutting-edge building material, cross-laminated timber is making inroads in America, and a manufacturer in Columbia Falls is at the forefront of the major breakthrough.
Operating out of a 40,000-square-foot facility near the heart of town, SmartLam is the nation’s largest producer of CLT. Only one other manufacturer is online in the U.S., an upstart in Oregon.
In only three years, the local company has capitalized on the market interest and already outgrown its plant, leading SmartLam to develop plans for the world’s largest CLT manufacturing site.
The facility, proposed for the industrial yard on the north end of town, will be four times as large as the current site and have the capability to utilize roughly 4 million board feet of lumber a month, or an estimated 160 truckloads.
“The sky’s the limit. I believe this will be a mainstream product in 5-10 years,” said Dennis Krueger with SmartLam.
“It’s an exciting time to be in the industry. This is a great opportunity to put Montana on the map.”
Scott Nagel, SmartLam plant manager, said the new facility should break ground in spring and could be completed by fall 2016. An estimated 40-50 employees would be hired to operate the new facility. The company is still deciding whether to keep the current facility up and running with its 17 employees already on staff.
The rapid rise of SmartLam represents a significant return to Columbia Falls’ blue-collar heritage. The community built on timber jobs and the former aluminum plant has seen cuts in both industrial sectors in recent years, including the massive layoff of hundreds of employees over the last decade after Columbia Falls Aluminum Company closed in 1999.
Now SmartLam is poised to become a new business anchor for the community while also providing a boost to the local timber industry. A bulk of the 2-by-8 boards that SmartLam uses to develop its CLT comes from F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber. An estimated 90 percent of the company’s products are sent out of state, meaning new dollars are coming into Montana’s economy, according to officials.
“It’s a perfect fit for the Flathead. It’s very exciting to see a company like SmartLam getting out in front of that big industry trend,” Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, said.
“It would be great for employment in the Flathead, and a great success for Columbia Falls and that community. It’s just a really tremendous opportunity for all of us.”
Unterreiner and over 70 attendees visited SmartLam as part of the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Timber Tour.
The group learned the intricacies of an innovative product and how it could become America’s next mainstream building material.
CLT is engineered wood panels consisting of layers of lumber glued to one another that can be used for a variety of construction projects.
Oil companies often use the prefabricated panels for heavy-duty platforms that are portable and easy and fast to install. The potential usages are expanding rapidly; the world’s largest CLT apartment complex — three eight-story buildings with 434 condos — is being built in Montreal.
In Europe, where CLT innovation originates, roughly 25 percent of all commercial buildings are made largely with prefabricated panels.
In Canada, the government subsidizes the development of CLT, seeing it as a valuable investment in the country’s timber industry as well as an environmentally friendly product. The development of CLT requires far less of a carbon footprint than that of steel and concrete. The prefabricated panels have also proved to be more flexible for seismic events.
SmartLam officials are in the process of having their products certified through the Engineered Wood Association, which will allow the company to streamline its sales.
“This is a really exciting time,” Krueger said. “It’s coming.”