Timber industry warned to prepare for Chch boom

By Ben Chapman-Smith

Expan produces engineered timber structural beams, frames, columns and joists as an alternative to steel and concrete. Photo / Supplied
Expan produces engineered timber structural beams, frames, columns and joists as an alternative to steel and concrete. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand's pre-fabricated timber sector needs to prepare for a boom in demand when the Christchurch rebuild starts or risk losing out to rivals, says the head of an engineered timber company.

Kiwi companies making engineered timber products for commercial and industrial buildings currently have the capability to meet domestic demand, said Robert Finch, chief executive of Expan.

But with architects and engineers predicting the Christchurch rebuild to take off later this year, the sector needs to start making some investments, Finch said.

"I think the industry needs to make sure it's monitoring that ramp-up very, very carefully with a view to being able to invest to increase capability when it starts."

"If the demand increases even a little bit more, then I think our existing fabricators will struggle badly."

Unless companies prepare to increase output by purchasing computer numerical control (CNC) machine tools, for example, building designers will quickly turn to alternative materials like concrete or steel-framing, Finch said.

Based in Canterbury, Finch's Expan has researched and created pre-fabricated timber systems specifically for non-residential industrial and commercial buildings.

It takes laminated veneer lumber (LVL), an engineered wood product using multiple layers of thin wood, and turns it into structural beams, frames, columns and joists.

Finch sees the rebuild as a chance for companies producing engineered timber products to take off.

"It's a coincidence that the earthquakes have happened while companies like ours have been doing the research and development of new building systems.

"I think this is an incredible opportunity and I think engineered timber could definitely carve out a place in the industrial and commercial sector in a way it hasn't before.

Brent Coffey, chief executive of the New Zealand Timber Industry Federation, also sees the rebuild as an opportunity but is more confident the sector can cope with a jump in demand.

"The reality is that the domestic and international market for timber right now is not great, so there's probably 50 per cent capacity there anyway. So I don't think we'll need any new processing plants."

Coffey said the benefits of using timber in the rebuild, are that it moves better than other materials during shakes, is more environmentally friendly and is easier to replace if damage occurs.

Companies producing light timber framing for residential properties need also be ready for the boom, Finch said.

"I think similarly, with the rebuild that has to happen with 5000 to 10000 houses, there's also an opportunity for ordinary light timber framing."

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