Competing Materials: The Battle Against Wood

 While Competing Materials Gain Traction, There Are Things You Can Do to Protect Your Market Share

Tall wood is an emerging trend. Mass timber structures are gaining interest in the architectural community, and proposals for a number of timber skyscrapers are under development in the U.S. In Chicago, architects and engineers are exploring the feasibility of an 80-story skyscraper called the River Beech Tower. It remains to be seen whether the concept will ever come to life, but folks in the ready-mix business don’t need to see it looming in the Chicago skyline to know: use of wood is increasing.

 

According to the Portland Cement Association (PCA), wood is cutting into concrete's traditional market share, particularly in structures of four to seven stories. Looking at framing shares in the U.S., the group forecasts that more than 18 million metric tons of cement could be replaced by wood over the next 20 years.

PCA’s campaign Stop Tall Wood was created to educate the public that the building codes shaping construction decisions are created as minimal thresholds. PCA wants to put pressure on code developers to slow down the rush to codify tall wood provisions, which are “untested, unproven, and unsound” for excessive structural applications.

“The performance of mass wood products like CLT is not well understood – particularly over long-term use, and across a variety of applications,” says Jamie Farny, Director, Building Marketing at PCA. “There have been multiple documented material failures, and questions about adequacy of fire testing remain. Until we get more information, we consider their use in tall structures to be a public safety issue.”

The National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) has created Build with Strength, a program targeting regional promoters of four- to seven-story multifamily residential developments throughout the U.S. Build with Strength especially focuses on the strength, durability and resiliency of concrete, and promotes the use of insulating concrete forms as a superior alternative to traditional wood frames.

Building Your Market Share

Whether you are feeling the competition from wood currently, or seeing it grow in your market, here are some tips for how ready-mix producers can promote concrete:

  • Promote the strength and safety of concrete: Especially in the era of dramatic weather events, building material resilience – including protection from high wind, rain and storm surge – is of great concern to the end user. See Build with Strength for a summary of benefits from concrete.

  • Leverage the relative cost effectiveness of concrete systems. There are a number of resources available to help you quantify the value of concrete, such as http://www.buildingstudies.org/. And, if you are in an East Coast community prone to damage from hazards such as hurricanes, MIT has created a Break-Even Mitigation Percent (BEMP) calculator, a simple, practical metric that offers building designers and owners a way to make better risk-informed decisions. Use the MIT tool to calculate the break-even cost of constructing a multi-family residential dwelling in baseline wood vs enhanced concrete.

  • Be aware of talking points to refute or question wood claims, since there is a great deal of confusing information out there. An evidence-based analysis of carbon sequestration and related climate impacts of wood products is available here. And, know that wood construction has many weaknesses, as summarized in this Stop Tall Wood fact sheet.

  • Work to convert wood to concrete: NRMCA offers free concrete project design and technical assistance to help convert wood and steel buildings to concrete. The Concrete Design Center experts can help select the right concrete solution for a wide variety of projects, from multi-family residential/mixed use to industrial and health care facilities. Visit NRMCA’s Concrete Design Center to learn more.  

  • Choose sustainable materials: Promoters of wood are claiming the high ground in “green” building. Yet, innovative approaches to cement formulation are yielding materials with advantages in both performance and sustainability. The use of blended cements in concrete production consumes less energy and offers improved efficiency and building performance.

  • Promote beautiful – and versatile – concretes: Architects and designers love the aesthetics they can achieve using decorative concretes, with their unique colors, textures and potential forms. And, although decorative concrete does come with additional production costs, ready-mix producers have an opportunity to sell more of these materials at a higher margin. 

As always, your local sales representative is remaining current with industry trends, and is always eager to talk to you about staying ahead of your competition. Contact your sales representative to learn more about this issue.