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International Business Canadian wood builders target overseas markets, but not just for their materials

The Tsingtao Visitors' Centre in Qingdao, China.

B.C. Forestry Innovation Investment

Thanks to Canadian know-how, people in Tokyo may soon be visiting their relatives in the first five-storey wood home built for seniors in the country.

"It's going to be the largest wooden structure in Japan," said Paul Newman, the executive director of market access and trade for the Council of Forest Industries.

Canada started to make serious inroads in the Japanese market for wood in the 1980s, according to Mr. Newman, but Canadian expertise in working with it may be just as important as the raw material.

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Western Canada has always been a large exporter of wood. It is one of the region's largest resources.

In 2014, Canada exported more than 12 million thousand-board-feet (mfbm) of lumber to the United States, according to the Council of Forest Industries, using Statistics Canada data. China, the next largest market, took in a volume of about 3.2 million mfbm, followed by Japan with just over 900,000. The numbers were similar for spruce, pine and fir exports, as well.

Booming sales – the amount of sawn timber sent abroad has generally increased over the past five years – have allowed Canada's wood industry to bring something perhaps more crucial to foreign markets: its technology and know-how.

Canada has become an expert in engineered wood products like cross-laminated timber (where solid lumber pieces are glued at right angles to adjacent pieces) and laminated strand lumber (in which strips of thin veneers are coated with resin, pressed into a continuous sheet and cured using high temperature). CLTs and LSLs are stronger, safer, and cheaper than ever to build with – and they are gaining traction worldwide as foreign countries increasingly look to Canada to learn how to build with wood.

Asia, for example, is a growing market for engineered wood, said Peter Moonen, national sustainability manager at the Canadian Wood Council.

"Many, many years ago, China was buying lower quality and low volumes of low quality [wood]. Now, because they're starting to build mid-rise [buildings] – similar to what we're doing here – they need to have more structural wood," he said.

As for Japan, Canada first introduced the North American style of light wood-frame building there in 1974.

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Now, the Japanese housing market consists of 12 to 14 per cent wood-frame building, Mr. Newman said.

"This was non existent before Canada started promoting wood construction in that market," he said.

The roots of Canada's rise to prominence as a leader in wood construction can be traced back to April of 2009, when British Columbia became the first province to amend the provincial building code to allow for six-storey (up from four) mid-rise wood construction. Ontario followed, and the change is expected to be reflected in the national building code this year.

Also in 2009, British Columbia passed a law mandating the use of wood in all new government buildings, the Wood First Act.

"If the government chooses as a customer to build with wood … when people come here to buy our wood, we can point to them and say, 'Look what we do with it, you can do the same' – whether it's mid-rise, whether it's tall wood, whether it's speed skating ovals," Mr. Moonen said.

Some of British Columbia's most iconic buildings are constructed with engineered wood, including the Richmond speed skating oval, several new buildings at the University of British Columbia and Prince George's Wood Innovation Design Centre, currently the tallest all-wood structure in the world.

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"By being the first and best users of our own product, it really enhances our ability to sell it outside of the province," Mr. Moonen said.

Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture, for instance, recently submitted a proposal for a 35-storey wood high-rise in Paris.

The degree to which industry leaders are asserting their expertise overseas in an effort to open up new markets is growing.

"What we do is first of all try to understand the market, understand the needs and trends that are happening in the market and then see where the products and species that Canada produces would fit," Mr. Newman said.

In India, he said, there's a growing trend to move away from tropical hardwoods toward sustainable sources of supply. "Some of our softwood species can be good substitutes for what they were using in their wood needs."

In Japan, China and now South Korea, Canada's wood organizations have inserted their know-how into the design process.

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"If they don't have light wood-frame building codes, we will try to work with the building authorities there to introduce them," Mr. Newman said. "It's a process we've been working on for decades in some markets – to try to gradually make them more wood friendly and enable greater use of wood in construction."

China's building code, for instance, didn't touch wood until Canada got involved in the early 2000s, according to Mr. Newman. "Now it's in the national codes. There's a well-defined wood construction standard."

The Wood Group has also worked with fire safety authorities in China and Japan to dispel some of the myths around wood buildings and safety.

"Fire is often an early concern when people start using wood, and we've demonstrated to them through fire testing you can use wood safely – and now they will permit buildings up to six storeys using wood construction," he said.

Some in the industry are taking a more active approach to push Canada's wood products to targeted markets.

Canada Wood has about 40 people stationed in China, half a dozen people in South Korea, as well as a handful of people in India, in an attempt to further wood construction – and Canadian exports – to those countries.

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That said, the United States remains Canada's biggest customer for wood. Fast + Epp, a structural engineering firm that specializes in engineered wood products, is opening an office in New York this fall to focus on the U.S. market.

"There's definitely an appetite developing in the USA for applying more wood technology in buildings," said Paul Fast, the company's founder.

While Mr. Newman added that he expects the U.S. market will remain a critical market, he said it is important to diversify sales.

"We also want to have really strong ties with Asia and other markets so we don't have all our eggs in one basket – which, frankly, was kind of the case when we hit the U.S. housing downturn."

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