Green gold: mass timber is modern alchemy

Written By Jeff Davies

Everyone in B.C. has an image of a lumber mill: hard-hatted workers at the controls, saw blades screeching, sawdust in the air, logs going in, lumber coming out, and yards full of twobyfours, neatly stacked.

But enter the Kalesnikoff Lumber mass timber mill at South Slocan, near Castlegar, and it’s a different kind of world. Inside a low, sprawling building full of electronics, machines are cutting, gluing, trimming, shifting, stacking. The only noise is a background hum. The workers look as though they’d be equally at home in a tech plant or an aerospace centre.

“I hang out over here,” says Dave Gouveia. “Everything’s on video.” Unlike sawmill workers of old, who risked fingers and limbs while cutting logs, Gouveia works at a computer screen. It looks clean, safe, and, above all, precise. “Everything is dialled in for the millimetre. I’ve got some tight tolerances.”

[Photo Jeff Davies]

Gouveia is using a tool known as a CNC, or computer numerical control. It’s essentially a huge router that makes fine cuts in the wood – but behind glass and at a distance from the operator. At a time when the lumber industry is struggling, mills are closing, and a cloud of uncertainty hangs in the B.C. air, Kalesnikoff has been expanding and embracing change.

“Our third-party auditor invited his cohorts along (to view the operation) because they see our facility as being the spaceship of the industry,” says quality assurance manager Erik Laughton. “We are very technologically advanced here.”

   “They see our facility as being the spaceship of the industry.”

Erik Laughton

What is mass timber?

Indeed, Laughton comes from an electronics background. “I’m not a wood guy by trade.” He’s been with Kalesnikoff nearly three years.

“Coming from electronics you expect a million pieces of raw material to be exactly the same. You come to lumber and it’s like, no two pieces are the same,” says Laughton. “I’m so excited about the fact that we’re part of something that is very unique and new.”

In the boardroom, meanwhile, Chief Operating Officer Chris Kalesnikoff ponders the question: what’s the best way to describe mass timber? 

”That’s probably the funniest part,” he says. “One of the questions I get asked the most and I can’t say I get any better answer here. But you know, really, it’s using structural lumber in a variety of different layups, using different types of techniques, but you’re essentially creating large scale. So, you know, solid wood products that can be used either as panels or structural beams or floor plates or wall assemblies.”

Mass timber products are large-scale solid wood units such as structural beams, floor plates or wall assemblies.

[Photo Jeff Davies]

Kalesnikoff’s mass timber mill produces what are known as GLT panels, or glue-laminated timber, also “glulam” beams and columns made from dimensional lumber that’s bonded together with strong, waterproof adhesive, as well as CLT, or cross-laminated timber, dimensional lumber stacked and glued together at right angles. It’s used in making floors, walls and roofs.

The biggest panel Kalesnikoff produces measures 12-feet wide by 60-feet in length and just over a foot deep. Layering and laminating different kinds of timber and grades of wood produces solid lumber that’s strong, versatile, and more fire-resistant than dimensional lumber. It can be used as a substitute for concrete and steel in large buildings. It makes for faster construction since one panel may form an entire wall or floor.

Like really big LEGO

“We spend so much time in 3D design of these structures, so everything is planned, pre-assembled,” Kalesnikoff says. “And as you start to create these products when you get to the job site, the speed of construction is very rapid.”

It sounds almost like a child snapping pieces together with a construction kit, a comparison that’s not lost on Michael Green, an internationally regarded Vancouver architect and advocate of mass timber construction.

Green’s 2013 TED Talk on the benefits of building with mass timber has been seen by more than 1.4 million people.

“Do you remember when you were a kid,” he says in the video, “and you kind of sifted through that pile in your basement, and you found a big, 24-dot brick of LEGO, and you were kind of like, ‘Cool! This is awesome.’ I can build something really big, and this is going to be great.”

Green works with other materials, but he loves wood the most.

“And part of the reason I love it is that every time people go into my buildings that are wood, I notice they react completely differently. I’ve never seen anybody walk into one of my buildings and hug a steel or concrete column, but I’ve actually seen that happen in a wood building.”

He sees mass timber construction as the wave of the future, a way to help house the homeless, as well as reduce the high carbon footprint of concrete and steel construction.

Many others agree.

Wildfire ecologist Bob Gray of Chilliwack says production of mass timber and other engineered products can also help reduce the fire threat by using wood that otherwise might remain on the forest floor: “I think there’s a huge opportunity there to help the industry evolve and stay competitive, keep rural economies more stable, and help us with the fuels issue.”

But he says the challenge is economics. “Engineered wood products are more expensive than traditional wood products as well as non-wood products. The key will be to make those non-engineered wood products and other building materials more expensive and, in the process, make engineered wood products more competitive.” That, Gray says could be done by charging a heftier carbon tax for non-wood building materials.

Lighter, more durable, less heat loss

A report released last year by Natural Resources Canada, The State of Mass Timber in Canada, says, “this green building material is one of our best answers to fundamental 21st century challenges associated with climate change and GHG emissions.”

“Green building material is one of our best answers to fundamental 21st century challenges associated with climate change and GHG emissions.”

The State Of Mass Timber in Canada

The report lists nine B.C. mills turning out mass timber products, including Kalesnikoff in Castlegar, and Structurlam in Penticton, the most of any province. It points out, mass timber buildings are three or four times lighter than those constructed from steel and concrete, so a mass timber building can be taller than a conventional building on the same site. They’re also more durable, more resistant to earthquakes, and have a natural insulation that reduces heat loss. And they can reduce GHG emissions by capturing carbon for the life of the structure.

Both Kalesnikoff and Structurlam speak the language of sustainability.

“Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you,” says the Kalesnikoff website. “Our woodlands management ensures we maximize the benefits of our forest while stewarding them for future generations.”

Structurlam echoes those comments: “Our business was built on quality, sustainability and customer satisfaction. We approach every project with a commitment to the strength and beauty of mass timber.”

Mass timber is more durable, more resistant to earthquakes, and has a natural insulation that reduces heat loss, according to The State of Mass Timber in Canada report by Natural Resources Canada.

[Photo Jeff Davies]

Both companies also make bold statements about their achievements: Structurlam says it’s “the first manufacturer to bring mass timber to market in North America.” Kalesnikoff, meanwhile, calls itself, “North America’s most advanced, vertically integrated, multi-species mass timber manufacturer.

Chris Kalesnikoff does sound like a man with his eye on more than the bottom line. “You’re not only using it (wood) as a structural product to build these amazing products, but you’re actually able to see and value and then work within these environments that have this incredible live feel to them.”

Humble beginnings

The Kalesnikoff family has deep roots in the West Kootenay, going back to the arrival of the Doukhobors a century ago.

“In the bone-tired days of the hungry 1930s, Koozma Kalesnikoff envisioned a more rewarding future for himself and his family,” according to the family’s history on the company website. “After applying for timber rights up to China Creek, 10 miles south of Castlegar, British Columbia, Koozma and his brothers began to build what would eventually become Kalesnikoff Lumber Co. Ltd. The beginnings were humble. For eight months, using axes, horses, and cross-cut saws, the three brothers punched their first logging road a distance of two miles and by the summer of 1940 built a sawmill.”

Ken Kalesnikoff (left), and Kalesnikoff Brothers logging in the 1940s [Photos]

Today, Ken Kalesnikoff, Koozma’s grandson, is the CEO, and Chris, Ken’s son, who started out cleaning up sticks in the yard as a child, is the COO, the one with the big ideas about expanding the product line. The company has a reputation for being innovative and forward-looking and politicians from all levels of government and all stripes have taken note.

During the 2009 BC election campaign, Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell visited the Kalesnikoff lumber mill with a busload of reporters. Then, as now, it was a challenging time for the industry. The sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. was causing the housing market to collapse south of the border, BC exports were drying up, and many sawmills were shutting down.

The Liberals chose Kalesnikoff for a campaign event because the company had found a way to soldier on in the business-friendly environment the Liberals had promised. At the time, the mill was turning out lumber to be fashioned into trusses for the Olympic speed skating oval in Richmond. Kalesnikoff did the initial work, then Structurlam in the Okanagan fabricated the wood into trusses.

In all its years of operation, Kalesnikoff has never had a shutdown, even during recessions. Chris Kalesnikoff says by 2014, the company had come to a crossroads. It had a successful business turning out dimensional lumber and some specialized products such as the trusses, but “things start to outgrow you and you start to lose the opportunity to choose your own destiny.”

They looked at a variety of alternatives, including wood pellets and electricity cogeneration, before finally settling on mass timber.

The timing was fortuitous.

Mass timber wave

Mass timber was starting to catch on. In 2015, UBC began building what it described as the world’s tallest wood building, the Brock Commons: 18 storeys, 53 meters. “This remarkable building, the first of its kind in the world, is another shining example of Canadian ingenuity and innovation,” said Jim Carr, then the federal minister of natural resources. In fact, the Brock Commons is a hybrid, constructed with steel and concrete as well as mass timber, but subsequent legislative changes allow high-rises to be built of wood.

In 2019, John Horgan’s NDP government announced an amendment to the B.C. building code to allow 12-storey wooden buildings. It’s part of a program called the Tall Wood Initiative, which encourages municipalities to build with wood and reduce their carbon footprints.

“Mass timber is the construction material of the future and the key to diversifying and creating a more resilient forest sector,” B.C.’s forests minister Katrine Conroy said at the time.

Just days after the province launched that program, the Kalesnikoffs unveiled plans for their expansion. The new mass timber mill, just down the road from their conventional sawmill, began full production in 2020. 

“Mass timber is the construction material of the future and the key to diversifying and creating a more resilient forest sector.”

Katrine Conroy

Today, mass timber accounts for about 40 per cent of the company’s production, with the remainder being dimensional lumber. Kalesnikoff now employs about 250 people directly in the Castlegar area in its milling operations, and many more indirectly, by contracting tree-planting and harvesting locally. “All the way from seedlings to solutions,” says a company slogan.

It’s an approach BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau supports. She visited the Kalesnikoff operations while they were building the new mill and heard a presentation she recalls as really inspiring: “This a model for creating long term sustainable economic activity in a community.” She notes the difference between the Kalesnikoff operations, owned and operated by the family, “versus a mill that’s owned by a multinational corporation, where the bottom line is about extracting the greatest amount of profit with the least amount of expenses.”

Certainly, Kalesnikoff has a long list of admirers, both in the Kootenays and around B.C.

   “It’s a niche play versus a volume play, and the major multinational companies are already all about volume.”

Stephen Harris

“Small and mid-sized companies like Kalesnikoff are smart to look for opportunities in innovation and value-added products,” says Stephen Harris, an instructor at the nearby Selkirk College School of Business and a communications advisor to the Interior Lumber Manufacturers’ Association. “It’s a niche play versus a volume play, and the major multinational companies are already all about volume.”

Dwindling timber supply

Gordon Hamilton, a respected journalist now retired from the Vancouver Sun, spent years writing about forest policy, and has a list of contacts that range from CEOs to fallers. He calls Kalesnikoff, “a prime example of a company that’s got it together. I really have a lot of respect for the work they do.”

But Hamilton adds, “there are still issues to be settled, such as being able to get a good timber supply.”

And that’s where the timber hits the forest floor. It’s all about supply.

The annual convention of the Truck Loggers Association in January generated a host of headlines that ranged from skeptical to downright angry: “TLA 2022: Fear, frustration and an uncertain way forward for the BC forest industry.” (Canadian Forest Industries) “Forest industry analysts paint grim picture for BC investment future” (Black Press) and “BC NDP blasted for its forest policy” (Western Investor).

All this, despite a robust market and lumber prices that have hit record levels over the past year.

“(Government) does not understand the forest industry or its business, especially the value-added sector.”

Russ Taylor

There was much talk of dwindling fibre supply and a poor investment climate, which industry analysts variously blamed on wildfires, environmental protests, new legislation that directs fibre to smaller firms, and in particular the Horgan government’s recent decision to defer logging in as much as one third of the remaining old growth forest. 

Conroy, Minister of Forests, Lands, Resource Operations and Rural Development, estimated job losses from old growth deferral at 4,500. But the BC Council of Forest Industries says the number could be up to 18,000, with as many as 20 mills closing.

“Flavour of the month”

“Simply put, B.C. is becoming un-investable,” was the blunt assessment of Paul Quinn, a forest industry analyst at RBC Dominion Securities, at a virtual panel discussion. 

Industry consultant Russ Taylor said the old growth deferral is hurting the value-added sector the BC government says it wants to encourage. He described the government’s support for mass timber as “the flavour of the month” and one that can support only a couple of mills.

In an email to Northern Beat, Taylor clarified his position. He says comments were mostly directed at government, “as they do not understand the forest industry or its business, especially the value-added sector.”  He doesn’t foresee much new investment in mass timber in BC, “given the business climate, changing forest policies, a punitive stumpage system, environmental protest, first nations issues etc.”   Taylor says private companies such as Kalesnikoff, which are already operating in B.C., will try to optimize their business, but the bigger companies will likely look elsewhere, perhaps to the U.S., to invest.

“Either we learn to deal with a declining fibre base, at least in terms of quality, or we’re going to have to import the wood.”

Christopher Gaston

“I don’t disagree with him,” says Christopher Gaston, an associate professor of markets and economics in the faculty of forestry at UBC. Dimensional lumber remains the bread and butter of B.C.’s lumber industry, “and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. If we lose that whole industry, that would be, I would say, catastrophic.”

People look at buildings made with mass timber, such as the Richmond speed skating oval, or Broad Commons at UBC, and, they think, “these are gorgeous. But the reality of that is that it still represents such a small part of the actual wood that we are producing.” Gaston says mass timber is trending up, and becoming more visible, but it accounts for about five per cent of B.C.’s lumber output.

In the long term, he does see huge potential for growth of mass timber production in B.C. “But to be sustainable I think we’ve got to take much, much more advantage of the technology. And we have to do one of two things: Either we learn to deal with a declining fibre base, at least in terms of quality, or we’re going to have to import the wood.”

That involves a fundamental change in the way we see our forests.

“Way back when H.R. MacMillan was cutting Douglas fir on the coast, he made a point of saying, ‘Gosh, this is a waste,'” Gaston says of industry pioneer H.R. MacMillan, BC’s first chief forester and one of the founders of former industry giant MacMillan Bloedel. “What we’re doing is turning what he called ‘green gold’ into two-by-fours that are ending up being hidden behind drywall in structures. And he made the comment that if we were smart we would stop logging, and wait until such a time that society values just what an amazing resource this is.”

Use technology to find solution

Gaston suggests the lumber industry here has tended to use the highest grades of wood for mass timber. But the supply is getting scarce. “If you look at what you’re already seeing in Europe and other parts of the world with things like cross laminated timber, they’re doing the opposite. They’re using lower end wood in these engineered products and letting technology make up for the fact of the lower fibre quality.”

In the future, Gaston says, “we’ve got to figure out more and more how to use technology to take that tree apart and put it back together again, which is what glulam or CLT (cross laminated timber) does, but do it at a higher and higher level of technology. Taking it apart and putting it back together again, literally at the nanoparticle level.”

Back at Kalesnikoff’s operations in the Kootenays, they’ve taken apart millions of trees over the past 80-odd years. Now they may have to find new ways to do it.

Chris Kalesnikoff says he doesn’t know how the old growth deferrals and other new policies will affect the firm and its harvest, but there will definitely be an impact: “It’s a lot of unknowns.”

But it sounds like Kalesnikoff will have to do more with less, does it not? “Yeah, absolutely. Use more of the tree. There are lots of creative ideas out there. And I think it’s a matter of understanding how to make it all come together.”

Do more with less. It’s not as catchy a slogan as, “From seedlings to solutions.”

But for Kalesnikoff, and many others in B.C.’s forest industry, it’s the new reality.