Lendlease using CLT at Trafalgar Place in London

Mass timber construction is gathering momentum in Australia with a recent announcement by Lendlease that it will launch a prefabricated building materials factory in Western Sydney. But the move was matched this week with news that builder StrongBuild is also jumping deeper into the sector, expanding its CLT and offsite prefabrication capacity with a new 15,000 square metre facility at Baulkham Hills coming online early 2016.

StrongBuild has several multi-storey residential developments that will use CLT ready to break ground in the new year, and according to architect Rod Pindar, a principal at Fitzpatrick+Partners, the company’s new headquarters will also be constructed 100 per cent from CLT and engineered timber products.

There is clearly greater momentum around engineered timber construction, Mr Pindar said. The practice is currently working on numerous other CLT projects, including multi-unit residential, hotel and commercial applications.

“There is much more awareness of timber and CLT in particular, even from just a year ago. Clients and developers are more educated and many of the big builders are now investing in serious research. We’re seeing it grow across the entire industry” he said.

Despite the increasing interest for CLT in the industry and a number of positive clients, the challenge is convincing the builders in such a competitive tendering market.

“Many builders are understandably risk-averse and still reluctant to price timber construction competitively, or even at all” Mr Pindar said.

“Tried-and-tested construction using steel or concrete is still the go-to solution for most builders trying to find the lowest possible price”.

This is particularly true of second tier, smaller firms, he said, that do not have the resources to have an in-house research and development team like the major tier one firms, such as Lendlease.

Fitzpatrick+Partners itself formed an R&D team that is dedicated to timber construction, and recently finished work assisting the Timber Development Association on a series of engineered timber technical design guides, released by Wood Solutions this month.

The research on which the guides are based was collated by the TDA, and the research method co-developed by the University of Technology Sydney. The UTS researchers also collaborated on design, cost and site issues with Arup, AECOM, Studio 505 and Fitzpatrick + Partners.

Building Cost Information System, from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, provided costs for wood products compared to concrete-framed or steel-framed buildings.

In all cases, the costs of the timber structural solutions were found to be significantly lower or lower than the competing non-timber solutions. Some of the main components were found to be significantly cheaper in timber for each building type investigated.

The research did not take into account further savings that could be made by using wood products on sites with poor ground conditions, or as an off-site modular and prefabricated solution for sites with restricted access.

“This is an exciting result for design, construction and development professionals,” Eileen Newbury, marketing and communications manager for Forest and Wood Products Australia said.

“The results confirm what many people have thought could be the case and provide hard data to support accurate costing of future projects.”

CLT is intrinsically a prefabrication system, Pindar says. And prefab is the sector where engineered timber products including CLT, glulam and laminated veneer lumber, have clear advantages over other materials.

Lendlease’s prefab plant

Lendlease’s DesignMake factory will be located in western Sydney, with the 15,000 sq m advanced manufacturing plant expected to be operational by late 2016. Its multiple production lines will manufacture a range of items, including walls, floor components and also full modular solutions.

The custom building components will predominantly use engineered timber products including cross-laminated timber, Tarun Gupta, Lendlease chief executive office for property said.

He said the company intends to procure the CLT from Europe, “as currently there is no commercially available local supply.”

This may change in the near future however, according to FWPA managing director, Ric Sinclair.

Mr Sinclair said that NZ firm XLAM, which produces CLT in NZ, is actively looking to construct a CLT plant in Australia, and that some of the directors of Hyne Timber have privately invested in the venture.

Until that happens however, he said the opportunity for greater uptake of CLT in Australian construction will need to be built with imports of the material, to grow the Australian market.

The example set by companies including Lendlease will also assist the market to grow, he said.

Mr Sinclair said another stimulus should come from expected changes to the National Construction Code. A proposed change in NCC2016 would see timber buildings up to eight stories tall permitted.

This proposal covers timber uses such as Forte’s engineered timber, hybrid construction such as Australand’s The Green, which used a cassette flooring system and timber framing for a four storey building, and traditional stick frame lightweight timber construction.

Mr Sinclair said that the code change will be particularly valuable for the second and third tier builders to help get the use of timbers spreading more broadly across the industry. It will also bring Australia’s code into closer alignment with the USA’s construction code, he said.

Another aspect post COP21 is the role timber construction can play in urban carbon sinks, as the Paris accord recognised the need for greater emphasis on carbon sinks.

Mr Sinclair said carbon stock in the build environment was not recognised in international carbon accounting up until recently. Before that, once a tree was harvested it was considered the carbon had simply vaporised, not stored in whatever product the tree was used for.

“We are now starting to see a greater appreciation of carbon stocks in the built environment,” he said.

In terms of the availability of softwoods in Australia for the manufacture of CLT, Mr Sinclair said that CLT is able to use the same type of low density timber such as Radiata Pine that is used for packaging items including pallets.

One of the flow-on effects of the decline in Australian manufacturing, he said, is that less of that wood is now needed for packaging manufactured products, and Radiata is now being exported to countries including Malaysia and Vietnam.

Mr Gupta said the new DesignMake operation will initially service the company’s growing property development pipeline.

He said there is a push in the property industry for safer, more sustainable and more efficient forms of construction.

“Innovative technologies, such as design for manufacture and assembly, can drive improvements in each of these areas, while delivering a high quality product for the end user,” Mr Gupta said.

“With DesignMake, Lendlease is progressing broader business growth opportunities in line with market trends and our capabilities.”