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Clarky's Comment - April 2014

If the NZ forest industry is serious about retaining market share of residential construction and expanding market share in low-rise commercial construction then we really need to up our act on offering dimensionally accurate and stable timber at the top-end for those willing to pay for the benefits that such attributes provide.

Sawmillers and merchant yards will of course say that forest growers give them a variable "sow's ear" and expect them to produce the "silk purse". There is some validity to that argument. We are now harvesting trees that have highly variable wood properties. Consider the focus on growth rate during the late 1980s and 1990s. It was all about GF rating. Since then we have improved our understanding of both genetics and silviculture (especially early rotation/higher stocking levels) and their impact on wood properties. So things should improve going forward.

But we cannot afford to turn the consumer off in the interim. There are two main domestic wood user-markets to target. The first is to give confidence to the larger house and commercial building construction firms that pre-fabrication of walls is a real option, just as it is for tilt-slab concrete, and for gang-nailed trusses. We must get stable and dimensionally precise building components onto sites as do the concrete and steel industry. Only then will timber gain ground as a credible alternative. But to make the component walls in a factory requires lumber that is both stable and delivered with mm-precise dimensions.

The second customer is the thousands of 2 – 3 person building teams that dominate the domestic house construction industry in NZ and Australia. Like me with the deck, these guys spend hours packing and planing timber to get the level from pivoting around a high point or the string line exposing a low point. Time is money (or fishing!).

Weyerhaeuser in the US South has been dealing with similar log property variability problems in southern yellow pine. It has introduced Framer Series Lumber. Just google it and you will get the idea - it's about removing the 'rogues' and separating out the best lumber from a mixed bag. Weyerhaeuser sell this superior category at a significant price premium to customers who demand high performance and certainty in construction. The interesting fact is that NZ and Australian wood processors that are members of WQI Ltd (now branded as SWI or Solid Wood Innovation) have the technology to achieve the same outcome with Radiata pine. Why do we not offer our builders the same option? Will they pay? We will never know unless we offer the option but I am of the opinion they will when they experience less variable, more stable products, faster construction times and reduced call- backs. Logic suggests that with timber being just a small portion of the total cost of a building, and rising labour costs, the time is right to test that.