DULUTH - Minnesota is fertile ground to plant a new kind of timber company, according to a study whose backers hope to lure such a manufacturer to the state.
Mass timber, a type of building material big in Europe and gaining in popularity for commercial projects in the U.S., could bring 50 good-paying jobs, more business and stability for sawmills and access to greener construction supplies for the region, according to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Minnesota Duluth, which is releasing its study Monday, March 11.
"The big piece of this, in our region and in Minnesota, is we need to be more creative and innovative," said Tamara Lowney, president of the Itasca Economic Development Corporation, which helped pay for the study alongside APEX, Minnesota Power, Great River Energy, the Blandin Foundation and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. "A project like mass timber lets us take a big look at something and really go after it."
Lowney had approached the industry before but was told to come back with answers to a few key questions: Does the state want it, and can it support a mass timber manufacturer? The study says yes and yes. A fact-sheet from supporters calls Minnesota "perfect" for the industry "because we have the lumber resources, workforce and transportation infrastructure required to support it."
In looking at the demand for mass timber, specifically cross-laminated timber or CLT, the report found that while building codes and lack of experience with the material could make it slow to catch on, benefits include "speed and ease of constructing modular systems, durability and strength, lower costs and the opportunity for a green alternative to traditional construction materials."
Cross-laminated timber typically involves several layered boards glued together that can be used as structural, load-bearing building materials suitable for multi-story construction. The seven-story T3 office building in downtown Minneapolis is a recent regional example of what the material is capable of.
Globally, the CLT industry is expected to quadruple in size to $2 billion annually by 2025, with North America as the second-largest market.
As far as supply: "Lumber mills and wholesalers in the Great Lakes region produce and distribute more than enough lumber in the grades and dimensions suitable for CLT manufacturing and have the ability to increase production and distribution volumes if there was a demand for the product," according to the study.
Lowney said that even as sawmills are working at capacity largely supplying residential construction, having an industry like mass timber to supply commercial projects could help smooth out any downturns in the housing market.
"If 2009 happens all over again, you're so dependent on residential markets," she said. "With mass timber, the downturns aren't as dramatic because now you've got an alternative market."
If residential construction keeps up in fast-growing markets like the Twin Cities, mass timber could also be considered for apartment complexes.
As for the broader economic effects of the industry, the study estimated that for every 10 jobs a CLT manufacturer brings to the state, another nine jobs would be created to support the industry. That's due in part to the likely need to bring in suitable lumber from around the region, perhaps even Canada, fueling a growth in transportation and logistics.
Lowney and a team of regional representatives will be at the Mass Timber Conference in Portland, Ore., later this week presenting their findings with the hopes the state will at least get a closer look.
If a company chose to come to Minnesota, it would be the first mass timber manufacturer in the region.
"These are projects that other states are vying for," Lowney said. "But we're the first Midwestern state to do a study and go to the forefront and say, 'Come here.'"