Hemlock-bamboo pairing might open Chinese market to B.C. product

VANCOUVER — A researcher with B.C. ties is looking to open more doors for Canadian western hemlock in China’s construction sector by introducing a hybrid laminate material that combines the timber with bamboo.

Brad Jianhe Wang, a University of B.C. graduate who heads Sino-Canada Low-Carbon in Ningbo, China, said his group is looking at the potential of a hemlock-bamboo CLT (cross-laminate timber) as a building material. The project, which has funding from both Canada and China, is in addition to existing efforts by the company to bring CLT made solely from B.C. hemlock to the Chinese market, Wang said.

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“We have built the first CLT pilot plant in China and made the first batch of Western hemlock CLT,” he said. “We have also built two CLT demonstration buildings in Ningbo using the hemlock CLT.”

According to provincial Crown agency Forestry Innovation Investment, construction using CLT materials has been trending up since 2000, with Europe as one of the regions with the earliest uptake. The material has been lauded for its sustainability and construction speed, among other factors.

In B.C., the completion of UBC’s Brock Commons this fall — at 18 storeys, the world’s tallest wood building — has further spurred interest in China, where wood construction is rare.

Rick Jeffery, president of the Canada Wood Group and Coast Forest Products, saw the interest first-hand last year during a trip to China to visit with development officials. When Brock Commons came up during the talks, Jeffery looked up the building’s renderings on his cellphone and passed it over to Chinese officials.

“For five minutes, they were talking among themselves about how we can go to 18 floors with wood,” he said. “Then they said: ‘Hey, we’d like to collaborate with you and learn much more about this.’ Within a year, they’ve developed the code of using CLT.”

Frank Lam, a professor with UBC’s Department of Wood Science (and Wang’s professor), said the research into adding bamboo might be an attempt to introduce a species native to China into the expensive CLT process. Bamboo is also among the fastest-growing plants in the world, with some species able to sprout 90 centimetres in a day.

“The good thing about bamboo is that it is truly a fast, renewable product, because its growth cycle is very rapid,” Lam said, but UBC researchers are currently focused on the potential of CLT using solely western hemlock.

“B.C. hemlock is a fantastic product. It’s under-utilized. … It has tremendous strength properties and is often not represented in building codes. So there are projects going on that more realistically represent the design value of these products.”

Wang said that uptake in China for CLT could be slow considering the costs involved, a sentiment echoed by Jeffery.

But Jeffery said that, given China’s lack of domestic lumber sources and the need for sustainable building materials, B.C. hemlock make in impact on the market, as well as gain use in other non-traditional markets such as Japan, South Korea and India.

“It’s not happening tomorrow, that’s for sure,” he said, noting the lack of knowledge of how to use wood in construction, as well as the lack of lumber in supply chains in places like China. “But we’re pretty bullish on this. We think once the standards are in place, and they learn how to use it, it will grow — I won’t say exponentially, but I think there’s a real niche for it.”

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