SmartLam Shines a Light on Montana’s Mass Timber Potential

Amid rapid growth in the cross-laminated timber market, Columbia Falls company continues expanding while trying to stay in Montana

By Dillon Tabish
An employee checks milled edges on a portable wood road, produced by SmartLam in Columbia Falls. Beacon File Photo

COLUMBIA FALLS — When Christine Lundberg was elected mayor in her hometown of Springfield, Oregon, a timber town that depended heavily on the wood-products industry and the largest local employer, Weyerhaeuser Company, she focused on how she could help revive the struggling sector.

That’s when, a few years ago, she was introduced to cross-laminated timber, or CLT.

North America was just becoming familiar with the engineered wood product, which is increasingly popular in Europe and consists of wood panels stacked in alternating directions and bonded with adhesive to create a sturdy building material.

“We made CLT a catalyst,” Lundberg said.

The city of Springfield, as part of a redevelopment project, prioritized using the wood product and this year is finishing construction of a four-story parking structure made out of CLT. The local school district is also incorporating CLT into the building of a new school. Companies that want to build with CLT have a variety of incentives, including property tax relief, enterprise zones and tax credits that encourage the use of CLT.

Oregon state leaders, including the governor and legislature, saw similar opportunities with CLT and shepherded the so-called mass timber movement across the state. An executive order was passed supporting CLT construction, and building codes were updated to incorporate the new-age material. Local construction companies and architects quickly followed suit and included the wood panels into a wide range of designs and developments.

Oregon is now the model for CLT development in the U.S. A 12-story, 220,000-square-foot building in Portland known as Framework is being built entirely out of CLT and will be the tallest all-wood building in North America. A 156,000-square-foot credit union is in the works in Hillsboro, Oregon that will be the largest all-wood building.

In 2015, WoodWorks, an initiative from the Wood Products Council in Oregon that helps provide resources for the development of wood projects, assisted on 19 mass timber or heavy timber projects in the U.S. In 2016, it worked with 91.

“It is not a pie in the sky; this is happening,” said Timm Locke, director of forest products at the Oregon Forest Resource Institute.

Research shows that there is a potential to increase market consumption of CLT by 6.1 billion board feet per year in the near term, according to the Oregon Forest Resource Institute. If Oregon taps into only 15 percent of the CLT market share — not far-fetched considering the state currently supplies 15 percent of lumber in the U.S. — then the state could add an estimated 17,000 jobs, according to the institute.

According to 2014 research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, mass timber and CLT development could create up to 85,000 jobs in rural communities across the U.S. The inherent environmental benefits are also frequently touted, as a mainstream replacement for steel and concrete in building projects that would significantly reduce carbon emissions and sequestration. Conservation groups have also largely supported the proliferation of CLT because the panels are constructed from very small logs and a variety of species, which allows harvesting through thinning projects instead of large-scale timber sales.

“Environmental groups are on our side instead of fighting us,” Locke said. “It’s a cheaper, faster and smarter way to build. Once it takes off, it will really take off.”

Listening to the delegation of experts and elected officials from Oregon, it’s easy to see why Casey Malmquist wants Montana to join the CLT revolution.

It was only five years ago when Malmquist founded SmartLam in a warehouse attached to Western Building Center in Columbia Falls and became the nation’s first manufacturer of CLT.

Malmquist hosted a conference in Columbia Falls last week that attracted more than 70 people and featured a panel from Oregon, including Locke and Lundberg. The goal of the conference was to raise awareness about CLT and its potential growth in Montana, Malmquist said.

“This was a glimpse of how CLT can make a big impact,” Malmquist said. “I really liked the message that the Oregon folks were able to deliver. They highlighted the collaboration that exists in the industry. And it was great to hear what a positive experience they’ve had and what a meaningful result that it’s made.”

“I think a lot of the Montana people were certainly surprised but also encouraged by that,” he added.

Malmquist continued: “This is far from just a discussion. This is real. It’s happening and it has huge potential. And it has so many benefits locally in the valley, but also for the state and country.”

SmartLam continues to be an industry leader. The company is currently manufacturing upwards of 800,000 board feet per month, with products shipped to projects across North America, including Calgary, Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas. The company continues to gain certifications that allow its materials to be incorporated into new projects, while state and federal regulations increasingly adapt to the product.

But with great success comes great demand, and SmartLam is approaching capacity at its current location. Malmquist has been trying to establish a new, larger facility — planned at 120,000 square-feet — in the Flathead Valley for years. He said a current site has been identified but was unable to provide additional details due to a non-disclosure agreement as part of negotiations.

If the property doesn’t come through, he said the company will move forward with developing a new facility in Maine, which could occur within a year. SmartLam has also developed plans to build an additional facility in the Southeast, where there is a healthy timber supply, he said.

The goal is to build multiple plants in the next 18 to 24 months, he said, to ensure that SmartLam remains at the forefront of a rapidly growing market.

“If we’re not successful in securing a site here in Columbia falls, we’ll likely move that equipment to a site in Maine,” he said. “That’s unfortunately my Plan B. I’ve got equipment coming. I’ve got to have a place to put it.”

Malmquist said SmartLam needs a site with infrastructure that’s already intact, which is why he could not settle with the Columbia Falls industrial yard or other empty properties across the Flathead.

“It’s just a matter of timing,” he said. “There are several sites (in Maine). And there is a huge initiative on the part of that state to get CLT up and running. They see the promise and future of that, and they want a plant there. It is something we’re in the process of doing. It’s really a matter of what comes first.”

Correction (July 6): The story previously inaccurately stated there were 19 mass timber projects in 2015 and 91 in 2016. In fact, WoodWorks, an initiative from the Wood Products Council in Oregon that helps provide resources for the development of wood projects, assisted on 19 mass timber projects in the U.S. In 2016, it worked on 91.

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