Summit Homes in Cordova, Tenn., has been building houses with engineered wood for so long that office manager Kevin Yoon “can't even remember some of the problems we used to have with real wood.”
But he says he knows his firm would be building different kinds of structures without the engineered I-joists, laminated veneer lumber (LVL), and glued laminated beams (glulams) that offer sturdy, warp-resistant alternatives to solid-sawn lumber.
“Architects can draw some crazy stuff,” says Yoon, whose company, a production builder, will construct 250 homes this year. “Some of the spans … can go up to 48 feet. Before, there was no product that could do that.”
In fact, engineered wood products have been on the market for decades, gaining entry in home building when Trus Joist invented the I-joist in 1969. For years, those I-shaped structural members cost far more than the wood beams they replaced and were used only in high-end custom homes.
But during the past 15 years that BUILDING PRODUCTS has been in existence, engineered wood garnered widespread approval as new types were introduced to meet design challenges, and as engineering improved and prices fell somewhat. Today, engineered wood still costs at least 10 percent more than traditional lumber in most markets, and only very expensive new homes can boast 100 percent engineered frames. Most builders mix engineered wood with solid-sawn timber.
Summit Homes typically uses engineered joists in the floor of rooms that sit atop garages. “You walk across the floor when it doesn't have any furniture on it, and you can feel it bouncing if you build it with wood,” Yoon says. “If you use an engineered beam, it eliminates that rebound. It's rock solid.”
Same goes for foyers with cathedral ceilings and two-story great rooms, which call for vast spans of perfectly straight framing lumber. “Home building has changed and the style of housing has changed,” notes Denny Huston, sales and marketing manager for Boise Engineered Wood Products, who says the use of LVL in wall framing now is common.
“It's changed home building,” agrees Robin Kelley of Trus Joist's marketing department. “It has provided better consistency in the structural frame. In turn, it's improved the structural capacity of buildings.”
The first LVL—also introduced by Trus Joist, now a Weyerhaeuser business, in 1977—replaced solid lumber as a flange stock. LVL, which looks like plywood, is made from thin veneers that are glued together. The grain of every veneer runs in the same direction, making it strong enough to span great expanses. The product typically is used in beams and headers.
But manufacturers are aiming to supply engineered products for the whole house. “We're not just looking for products for the floor,” Kelley of Trus Joist says. “We're taking a whole-house perspective, looking at the structural frame from the peak all the way to the foundation.”
It might only be the lack of raw materials that has kept the industry from arriving at that destination, notes Mike O'Day, manager of engineered lumber for Georgia-Pacific. “We would be growing faster if there were more supply of raw material,” he says. “Over the next few years, growth will start happening again”—and engineered lumber, which now appears in half of all new homes, could be part of the frames of up to 80 percent of them, O'Day estimates.
Yoon says he'll look forward to it. “If every builder would use the engineered products wherever he could, I'm sure it would drop the price of it down to where it would be a no-brainer,” he says. “Everybody would be stocking it, and everybody would be using it.”
Still, the price hasn't deterred framer Tom Ebberts, project manager for TWR Framing in Corona, Calif., who says he is one of only a few contractors in his area who uses engineered beams and floor joists.
“The price, it's not even considered now,” says Ebberts, who frames more than 5,500 homes a year for production builders. “It's a way of life now. You wouldn't go back the other way.”
Roseburg Forest Products. The manufacturer supplies a framing system that includes the RFPI I-joist, pictured here with LVL and RigidRim rimboard. The firm says its I-joists are offered in long lengths, allowing for multiple span installations and eliminating the need to lap joists over bearing walls or support beams. This translates into speedier installation, according to the maker. 800-245-1115. www.rfpco.com.
Boise. The Simple Framing System combines the company's Versa-Lam engineered lumber and BCI Joists so framers use fewer pieces in longer lengths, wasting less material and saving money and time in cutting and fitting. The system reduces installation time by up to 20 hours compared with using solid-sawn lumber, the maker says. 800-232-0788. www.bc.com.
Trus Joist. The Parallam series of parallel-strand lumber beams and headers comes in large sections for easier field assembly and simpler connections, the maker says. The products support heavier loads than comparably sized glulam or sawn lumber products, the company says. Longer spans allow for wide-open rooms without intermediate posts or columns. 800-628-3997. www.trusjoist.com.
Georgia-Pacific. Wood I Beam joists, available in a variety of sizes, feature an enhanced OSB web with high-grade solid-sawn lumber or GP Lam LVL flanges. Wider flanges on some joists provide broader gluing and nailing surfaces for floor and roof sheathing, which saves builders time and money, the company says. 800-284-5347. www.gp.com.
LP. These laminated veneer lumber products are super-strong because their ultrasonically graded veneers are bonded together with exterior-grade adhesives, which renders the lumber firm and steady, the company claims. Used as primary load carriers, notably as headers and beams, LVL is offered with a weather-resistant coating. 800-999-9105. www.lpcorp.com.
Anthony Forest Products. Because these glulam columns and beams are crafted from a laminated composite of high-strength lumber, natural defects are randomized for greater strength and reliability, the maker says. This product, the maker contends, boasts flexibility in design and installation, and consistently possesses 12 percent moisture content, which is almost at equilibrium. 800-221-2326. www.anthonyforest.com.
Universal Forest Products. Easy Riser, a pre-notched, adjustable 13-step engineered stair stringer system, eliminates most of the cutting and layout associated with traditional stair building, the company says. The system can achieve a stringer length of 15 feet, 9 inches with no vertical bracing or sidewall attachments, and is adjustable to accommodate wider tread or riser measurements. 800-488-5385. www.ufpi.com.