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Better Business, Greener Projects
Architectural woodworkers look to turn profits while also tackling more green building projects.
By Jo-Ann Kaiser
Business is not going gangbusters like the cabinet industry is witnessing, yet architectural woodworkers, for the most part, are seeing a steady improvement in sales compared to a couple of years ago.
So say a handful of architectural woodworkers located in various parts of the country, who Wood & Wood Products interviewed about business trends. In addition to asking them to help measure the pulse of business, W&WP delved into the impact the green building movement is having on their operations.
Bruce Cody, president of Architectural Wood, Roanoke, VA, and a past president of the Architectural Woodwork Institute, says he thinks business, on balance, is pretty strong. "You have some pockets and regions that are extremely strong and some smaller areas not doing so well," he says. "I read articles about the state of the economy and you get mixed signals about the retail level. It's not an area I deal with much, but I hear woodwork for educational institutions is strong.
"In the Washington, DC, market, the government is spending a lot on infrastructure and security-related things. Hotel and tourist building is pretty strong. In the manufacturing sector, they say that $1 spent equates to $7 in the economy. I have a feeling that a lot of money is going into building," Cody adds.
Steve Taylor, director of architectural services for the Woodwork Institute, says he also sees a lot of money being spent on woodwork for school projects. "In California, the public works market is strong and schools and hospitals are strong growth areas, too. In California, hospital work seems to be driven in part by seismic issues, and that could account for school building and rebuilding as well" to bring the buildings up to code, Taylor says.
Rick Kogler, operations manager for Architectural Wood Products Inc. in Baton Rouge, LA, says the industry overall appears to be doing very well. "In conversations with other architectural woodworkers, the feedback is that business is up except for a few pockets of the country, and is very high for commercial and residential work. Some companies are reporting backlogs of work for six months or longer. The positive news is quite a change from a year ago." Kogler adds that he sees an upturn in healthcare and governmental work.
Bruce King, president of Bruce King Fine Woodwork in Denver, CO, says business for his company has been very solid. "Colorado has historically been a boom or bust state. It was a mining place, and that was notoriously boom or bust, but it has been the same for energy and even tourism. Skiers flock here when we have snow, but stay away when we don't. The state has done a lot to stabilize tourism by doing things like manufacturing snow. Right now, we are in a boom because of the demand for gas. This area has a lot of oil and gas resources."
As far as architectural woodworking and construction projects go, King says the late 1990s represented a tremendous period of growth due to Internet start-up companies. "There was a boom in office structures, but when the dotcom companies went bust, Colorado was left with an oversupply of office space that affected the construction industry. It wasn't a complete halt, because of medical and institutional work continuing steadily. While there is growth here, some companies were impacted and went out of business. The economy is steadily improving and some companies are quite busy, but some have space in their schedule."
King has been in the woodworking industry in various capacities for 25 years. "For much of my career I worked for other companies, working in a shop, in the field, then doing estimating, project management and business development. I realized I had reached a point where the only way to advance was to work for myself."
King also does consulting work in leadership and management. "Woodworking companies are often started by people coming out of the trades - people with strong engineering minds. With success, the role the owner or top manager performs begins to change. It's very different managing 100 people rather than 20. Administrative skills become more critical to maintain a healthy business culture," he says.
King says he believes woodworking businesses that attract good employees will also attract good customers. "The state of the economy affects our business, but it's also important to create a culture that makes us successful so that even in tough times, companies can succeed."
It's Not Easy Being Green
W&WP asked architectural woodworkers how the green building movement, including wood certification and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, has impacted the way they do business. All of those interviewed reported that the increasing emphasis on environmental consciousness is a very positive, welcome development, but some argue there are problems with compliance, from supply availability to material costs, along with disagreements over the criteria for certification and LEED system points.
"I think the green movement is a very healthy concept," says King. "It is embraced, at least in principle, by most people in our industry. However, it is also very misunderstood."
King says that wood, by definition, is a renewable resource. "What is not green about wood? I have a huge fascination about wood and have been using reclaimed wood in many projects from buildings that have been dismantled. Some of the material comes from structures erected 100 years or more ago, made from old stands of timber. Old timbers have a lot of interest, with nail holes, knots, checking and rust. The wood usually has a tight grain and is weathered, which gives it a deeper color. For one project I was renovating, the client wanted exposed brick and exposed timbers. The original material was pretty beat up, so we covered the existing timber with Douglas fir and hemlock."
Taylor, of the Woodwork Institute, says he thinks the LEED system standards for wood - that give points to FSC-certified woods only - are problematic.
"I say this as a lifelong Sierra Club member and someone very sympathetic to the idea of green forest management," Taylor states. "[The USGBC] has set the bar so high that it is very difficult to get quality products that meet its standard, particularly in terms of lumber and veneers. The problem regarding core products like particleboard and MDF, etc., is not nearly as difficult because there is strawboard and other agricultural types of panel products, which are green and fill that criteria. There's a certain amount of recycled product out there, but as far as actual lumber and veneer from real wood, there's a problem.
"I have had inquiries from shops and architects about availability of those types of products for different projects," Taylor continues. "When I get on the Internet or start calling suppliers on the phone, I find it is very difficult to get green veneers, for example, in any kind of quantity and of reasonable quality. It seems likewise difficult to get environmentally acceptable lumber. This certainly won't cripple the LEED program because there are so many parts to the program that people can choose to get high ratings from other designations and let the category of green wood products go by the wayside."
Taylor and others stress that the concept of using green materials is very attractive. "But as far as it affects our industry, it seems problematic. I think the people who certify these products need to figure out a way to get some certified product out in the marketplace; or else that aspect of the LEED program is in danger. I want to emphasize that there is nothing in the Woodwork Institute program or manual of millwork that conflicts in any way with the LEED program. We are not opposed to the program or the idea of environmentally sound wood products. I am just commenting on the situation as I see the availability of product that meets the standards they have set," Taylor says.
Several people lament that Lyptus, a hybrid hardwood developed by Weyerhaeuser, does not meet LEED requirements because it is a cultivated product, rather than one that grows wild in the forest. "If you used the same standard for what we eat, we wouldn't be able to eat bread because it isn't grown on a prairie," Taylor says.
Certification Rules Too Strict
Hardened environmentalists argue that some of the commercially harvested lumber in the United States is not certified because it is essentially from a monoculture instead of from a diverse natural forest. Like Lyptus, woods like Douglas fir might not qualify under this criteria, when the lumber otherwise fits the bill for a green product.
Cody says he has seen the impact of green building in his area. "William McDonough of Charlottesville, VA, has been a real mover in the green and energy-efficient design area. He's a real guru in this area. One of his former students, now working in Roanoke, came up with an idea for a competition for designing green buildings, primarily residential, using many of the principles in McDonough's book, "Cradle to Cradle" [written with Michael Braungart]. We were expecting some local interest, but people heard about it on the Internet and all of a sudden, little old Roanoke has become a major center for green building," Cody says. "There was a major exhibition of the designs and submissions came from all over the world. A few experimental houses will be built, which will be sold at some time to the public."
Cody says he sees a lot of interest among his clients about using green, certified wood products; but when it comes time to do the actual project, the green products do not always make the cut. "There's a lot of interest in using green products, there's a lot of discussion, and there's a lot of hype, but I'm not seeing it in the practical world. There are a lot of costs associated with doing a LEED project. People don't want to admit that, but there it is. When it comes down to dollars and cents, clients occasionally value out some of the green productst. We support the idea [of green building]. We are trying to stay up front and get as much information as we can and disseminate it to clients. Others may be farther along with clients in use of green building products, but my experience is that the intent and interest may be there, but the execution isn't always there."
None of those interviewed disagree with the concept of building with green materials. All champion the idea. "The intent of the green movement is very good," Kogler says, echoing the sentiments of many in architectural woodworking.
Taylor says he wishes the Forest Stewardship Council and others involved in certifying wood products would be a little less extreme. "I am very in favor of environmental interest groups and the work they do, but it doesn't do any good to get a set of standards that people can't meet in the real world."
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