SBCA: Vanguard for U.S. Light-Frame Construction

President's Message

SBCA: Vanguard for U.S. Light-Frame Construction

Working together, we can develop a thorough, well-thought-out and consensus-based recommendation for the SYP design value issue.

Structural building component manufacturers transform raw lumber into highly sophisticated, technically feasible and architecturally creative products each and every day. It’s what we do. In the last 50 years, we have transformed light-frame construction, conceiving architectural features that were impossible in the 1940s. Without the creativity, engineering excellence and software brilliance that component manufacturers and suppliers have brought to the market, light-frame construction as we know it would not exist. All of us that are part of this industry should be proud of what we do to provide affordable and unique structures to the fabric of America.

I think most component manufacturers would agree with the following statement: The structural building component industry has been the lumber industry’s greatest, yet most ignored, asset for the last 30 years. For decades, we have encouraged our lumber suppliers to listen to their customers and communicate with us on industry issues, but we’ve had limited success. Most likely, this is due to our lack of a collective message. United we are strong, and with SBCA as our voice, we can state our message much more effectively than as a single company. This has never been more clearly demonstrated than over the last few months as we have been dealing with defeating poorly thought-out recommendations to reduce Southern Yellow Pine (SYP) visual grade lumber design values.

Concerns with SYP visual grades were brought to the forefront by SBCA nearly two years ago. SBCA members joined together to destructively test SYP visually graded lumber to ensure the proper design values were present. Lumber samples from member companies representing several mills were tested at the Structural Building Components Research Institute (SBCRI). Testing revealed some concerns around the amount of open grain (juvenile) lumber found in the samples, and the relatively low test values for this juvenile lumber.

SBCA contacted one of the major SYP lumber suppliers with these results. Concerned with the implications from the test data, this supplier contacted the Southern Pine Inspection Bureau (SPIB) and asked it to research the issue. SPIB then undertook a test program and made recommendations, summarized as follows:

• In 2010, SPIB and Timber Products Inspection worked collaboratively to perform bending and tension strength tests on a representative sample of No. 2 2x4 Southern Pine lumber.

• A sampling and testing plan was submitted to the American Lumber Standards Committee (ALSC) Board of Review. This plan focused on No. 2 2x4s, a widely produced size/grade, which is believed to be the most sensitive to changes.

• A sample of 360 pieces per cell (size-grade-property combination) was tested. Based on the results, SPIB proposed to adjust the design values for dimension sizes of visually graded Southern Pine lumber, reducing design values by as much as 30 percent.

Read more on SPIB’s plan and input from affected parties.

SPIB’s recommendation was made public in late September 2011, and came without any collaborative effort to reach out to discuss its testing program or results with SBCA. Fortunately, SBCA was informed of the proposed recommendation by a member of the Southern Forest Products Association (SFPA) on September 21. SBCA immediately sprang into action, contacting ALSC to determine the facts and what the next steps were from ALSC’s perspective. On October 4, SFPA arranged a teleconference, stating, “Because component manufacturers are an important Southern Pine customer, SFPA is hosting this conference call with the purpose of providing accurate information directly from SPIB and SFPA…”

Once it was clear through the SFPA teleconference what SPIB intended to do, SBCA shared its concerns over the proposed reduction in design values. SBCA raised these concerns with everyone in the marketplace including: its membership and entire database of SBC Magazine readers, the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), the Leading Builders of America, (LBA), the Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC), the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA), and several independent lumber mills. SBCA also voiced concerns over SPIB’s conclusions and its approach to implementing such significant changes. It was clear this recommendation, if approved, had the potential to create a very serious cost and engineering/design disruption to all Southern Pine construction, which is estimated to be approximately 40 percent of all ongoing construction in the U.S.

Leading up to an October 20 ALSC Board of Review meeting, where the SPIB proposal was scheduled to be heard, SBCA organized a series of conversations with its Lumber Task Group and found two lumber mills that were strongly aligned with SBCA’s concerns. SBCA further presented its points of view at the ALSC meeting, principally arguing that alternatives existed to a proposed design value change (such as a change in the grading rules to cull out the open grain lumber). SBCA also stressed that immediately implementing a change in design values would be extremely disruptive to the entire supply chain of the construction market. A strong coalition made up of representatives from the Truss Plate Institute (TPI), Michigan State University, Mississippi State University (MSU), NAHB, NAHB’s Building System Council, LBA, ABC and NLBMDA provided supporting testimony. Expanding on SBCA’s primary arguments, these organizations thoroughly explained the negative and unforeseen impacts of an immediate implementation of a hastily-put-together recommendation.

ALSC has agreed to continue to accept written support positions up until December 26, and to take additional verbal testimony at its next hearing on January 5, 2012. In the interim, SBCA continues to lead a coalition of interested and aligned parties made up of leaders from SBCA, TPI, NAHB, LBA, NLBMDA and ABC, along with representatives from independent mills and representatives from MSU. This group is working on a solution in opposition to the SPIB proposal. We hope to put together a thorough, well-thought-out, and consensus-based recommendation, creating a visual grading process for open grain SYP material that would allow the existing design values for SYP to remain the same. If fully approved by all impacted parties, this approach would stabilize our country’s SYP assets. Altering the proposed across-the-board devaluation of the species can prevent considerable economic impact on the light-frame construction industry as well as the U.S. economy overall.

We have always relied upon the forest products industry to provide accurate lumber properties we can trust. It is presumed by building and construction professionals, and is a pillar of the building code, that the grade stamp on grade-marked lumber defines a certain set of structural resistance design values that can be used to resist applied loads. Our collective success as component manufacturers and the customers we serve is predicated upon lumber suppliers providing reliable engineering properties, which allow light-frame construction to be safe, efficient and effective. This success can continue, using a visual grading process with good quality control to ensure the visual grade defines accurate lumber properties.

All logs are not created equal, but we believe our lumber suppliers have the intellect and the technology to provide the marketplace with accurate properties. The issues that have cropped up require the lumber manufacturing community to act in ways never seen before in terms of looking at their log resource. They must produce material that fits the needs of the industry, while meeting the values assigned to each grade. Component manufacturers will find ways to use all types of lumber, from open grain, lower design value lumber from younger forests to denser lumber from older forests. Our engineering expertise can create value from items that may not seem valuable on the surface, so long as we can rely on the properties assigned to each grade.

The key to solving issues like this is communication—lumber suppliers communicating with component manufacturers, or better yet, the coalition we have established. SBCA has been at the point of the spear on this SYP issue, championing the needs of our members, as well as our customers, the engineering community and all those who would be affected by SPIB’s original proposed recommendation. Standing up for this industry is nothing new for SBCA, and the association does it well for us all. As I said in my November message, together we can turn the tide on this harsh economy and grow our industry exponentially using the tools we have available today. SBCA is one of the strongest tools we have at our disposal. Each member’s voice is extremely valuable, so get engaged, and join us in the fight to lead our industry toward better days.