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Building for the future

Swedish forestry group Södra will begin production of cross-laminated timber (CLT) this year. Michelle Gordon caught up with its GB & Ireland sales director Jeremy English to talk about its plans to move into the new market.

International forestry industry group Södra grew out of a co-operative of forest farmers in 1938. It has grown to become Sweden’s largest forest-owner association with 51,000 members, who own and care for two million hectares of forest in the south of the country.

Adding value to its members’ forest products remains at the core of Södra’s business model 80 years later, and the group is constantly innovating.

“One of our key goals is that we want to grow our forests by 20% by the year 2050,” said its GB & Ireland sales director Jeremy English.

“We are looking at all of the different ways that we can add value to the product that our owners produce and we see CLT as another option for us to offer into the market.”

Södra’s new CLT facility is situated in Värö – also home to its largest sawmill and pulp mill – and the first CLT will be produced early next year, starting off with third party processing, with a plan to produce its own CLT in the second quarter.

The company has made a very deliberate decision to start small and to test the market, with a capacity of 15,000m3 for year one, but plans are already in place to extend its offering, if the conditions are right.

“We are literally dipping our toe in the water and saying can we do this?” said English. “So, it is quite minimalist, but we already have plans for a bigger second facility if the original one is successful.”

The pilot line will give Södra valuable experience of live projects and the challenges involved in CLT manufacture and it is already laying the groundwork for a larger operation, should the pilot be successful.

“We are already doing the work in the background,” said English. “We are looking at where we would we site a bigger facility, how we would finance it, what the business plan would be etc, so as soon as we have got proof of business, we won’t then be starting the process, the process will already be well down the road to go to board approval.”

Initially most of the CLT will be distributed within Sweden and Södra has signed agreements with Swedish companies who will use its product but it has ambitions to make it available further afield.

“Sodra have three target markets for their timber products – Sweden, the Netherlands and GB & Ireland – so our ambition will be to have product into this country as and when it is available,” said English.

The UK construction sector is far behind many of its European counterparts when it comes to CLT, said English adding: “We are concrete and steel first, timber second, whereas some parts of Europe, especially places like Austria and Germany, they are much more timber first and concrete second and the same with Scandinavia.”

But the CLT market is growing, he explained, as people increasingly seek out built solutions and systems rather than individual components.

“If you think of a European city you get lots of five to eight storey blocks particularly where you have got a concrete shell at the bottom, which is probably retail space or garage parking, then on top of it you have got apartment space, so four or five storeys of apartments, and in that situation CLT is perfect and it is becoming more and more popular,” explained English.

As sustainability continues to become a bigger part of people’s requirements, CLT ticks all of the boxes, providing a quick, quiet and safe way of building, with excellent environmental and thermal properties, as well as being much lighter than concrete.

“I genuinely think the combination of timber products is going to take more and more market share, the more the supplier side focuses on providing building solutions rather than just building components,” said English.

“We want to work with our customer base to help them realise the opportunity that we believe the market is going to bring to them in terms of using timber in construction. We want to be there with all the right tools and products to help them make a success out of it because we are committed to the use of timber in construction and we have to adapt accordingly.”

*THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE WINTER 2018 EDITION OF TIMBER CONSTRUCTION MAGAZINE

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