February 8, 2017
Michelle Johnson, CSI
The landscape of light commercial architecture is changing. Following its economic recovery, this particular market is back on pace to exceed $4 trillion in construction activity in the coming years—more than 37 percent higher than the multi-family segment. (These statistics come from sources ranging from U.S. Census data and a recent Dodge Data and Analytics Market Forecast Report to Freedonia Group’s 2016 “Siding Industry Study.”) These new or refurbished light commercial structures will run the gamut from retail and lodging to healthcare and education, providing architects with numerous opportunities to develop differentiated spaces that conform to occupants’ needs while pushing the boundaries of ‘traditional’ design.
With the dramatic rise in multi-use facilities and the continued demand to integrate these buildings into the larger community, design/construction professionals are faced with new demand to integrate form and function into a seamless package, regardless of the ultimate use of the building.
“Corporations are beginning to think of architecture as a marketing tool—a way to differentiate themselves,” says Jessica Vargas, project architect at Holladay Properties (South Bend, Indiana). “There is a lot of space in the light commercial market for that envelope to be pushed.”
To solve this challenge, myriad architectural products have been developed offering opportunities to incorporate novel materials and structural elements into designs in order to both create true aesthetic differentiation and build an immediately recognizable ‘brand’ for those spaces. From metals to acrylics, and ceramics to composites, manufacturers continue to introduce products pushing the boundaries of materials science and design. However, even with all the new entrants to the market, some design standards have withstood the test of time—perhaps none more than wood.
Enter engineered wood
Architects and designers continue to specify wood products—especially exterior cladding—when trying to elevate the beauty of an existing structure, tie it more closely into its surroundings, or match the aesthetics of an established community. Wood is aesthetically versatile, easy to work with, and delivers predictable, if not always strong, performance. In its traditional form, the material has a number of natural threats, from moisture to mold to termites, making individual installations highly susceptible to costly early failure.
Enter engineered wood—a material made by mixing wood particles with resins and glues, applying pressure, heat-treating, and cutting to size. This process is inherently more sustainable, as it uses the entire log to create a product that looks, feels, and handles just like wood, with the added advantages of enhanced impact resistance and the ability to create nearly any wood-like finish desired, from full-blown cedar shakes to smooth paneling.
“Engineered wood has the ability to be very chameleon-like,” notes Vargas. “It allows architects to look at cladding in a different way—as adding the punch and the pop to a design instead of just being a protective layer.”
Whether used as the primary cladding or specified as an accent to other materials, engineered wood delivers not only aesthetic impact, but also durability compared to standard cladding materials such as vinyl, aluminum, and stucco. It can also be more durable than traditional fiber cement—a finding that is reinforced by high-speed impact tests performed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—in addition to being lighter, easier to work with, and faster to install.
Nevertheless, specification of engineered wood continues to lag behind other materials in the exterior cladding space. The 1970s versions of these products were marred by failures; their early formulations were derided as a mix of glue and sawdust, with widely publicized issues and recalls related to paint delamination, swelling, and mold due to moisture penetration.
The industry took those recalls seriously, pulling old formulations from the market and working to develop new ones. Today’s engineered wood products are a far cry from their progenitors. New marine-grade resins and waxes are used to treat each individual wood fiber, ensuring complete moisture resistance from the surface to the core, and proprietary binders and chemical treatments ensure unmatched durability and resiliency against both impacts and termites. These new technologies combined result in a product that is stronger, more durable, and more sustainable than ‘real’ wood, along with the benefit of being engineered—meaning it is truer and straighter, lacking the knots, warps, and inconsistent strength of virgin wood.
Bridging the specification gap with engineered wood
Legacy specifications go a long way in determining what claddings go on a building. Increasingly, corporations are developing ‘prototype standards’ for their physical locations that set out a particular design aesthetic, but leave the exact execution (and materials specification) up to the architects, designers, and contractors on the ground.
However, this approach can create issues, especially when regional considerations are not taken into account. For example, if an architect’s design was developed for the American West, the materials specified could be wholly unsuitable for the intensely wet conditions of the Northwest. Understanding the variables and seeking out alternative (and improved) solutions is critical to the overall success of a new structure.
For many building owners, it is all a matter of cost: delivering on the design specification at the lowest-possible price point. Ultimately, it is all about risk and reputation for specifiers. Without understanding the advantages and disadvantages of a particular product, some may be reluctant to opt for a new and untested product, especially if they have not experienced it for themselves.
“Education plays a major role in helping architects and designers select the best products for their particular project. However, there are almost too many new products to keep up with,” says Gary Marion of American Building Contractors (Burnsville, Minnesota). “Too often, this means that a specifier is going to stick with their ‘standard’ rather than trying something new.”
However, standards can be modified, especially when there is provable return on investment (ROI) from other projects and a strong working relationship with every member of the project team.
“The best architects seek out the advice of the installers and GCs during the pre-planning and specification phase of any project,” explains Marion. “They’re the ones with a lot of the product expertise and who know all of the real benefits and downsides to a product, since they’ve been hands-on with nearly everything.”
Often, it only takes one great project to change perceptions and specifications.
“I had to fight for approval to specify engineered wood cladding on a recent project, as the original plans specified vinyl siding, which would not have been viable for the climate we were working in,” said Vargas. “But once I was able to have the team touch and feel the engineered product and show them successful installations on other projects, they were hooked. That project provides us with a true ‘proof point’ on engineered wood, especially since its surrounded by buildings with other claddings that haven’t stood up as well in the long run.”
Ultimately, it is important to evaluate the needs and challenges of each project on an individual basis to determine the right products to specify based on all project parameters. However, if natural beauty, durability, sustainability, and ease of installation are key criteria, engineered wood is worth another look.
Michelle Johnson, CSI, is a segment marketing manager for LP SmartSide engineered wood trim and siding, and is currently focused on the growth within light commercial and multi-family realms. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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