by Ryan Nix
On Monday, Dec. 9, the Structurlam Mass Timber Corporation announced that it will expand its operations into the United States, choosing Conway to house its first mass timber plant. Speaking inside the empty, cavernous interior of Conway’s former Nucor Steel Plant, Hardy Wentzel, Structurlam’s CEO explained his company’s intention to sustainably convert the defunct 288,000 sq. ft factory into the United States’ first mass timber plant.
“This $60 million investment shows how excited and optimistic we are about this new partnership with the state of Arkansas,” says Wentzel. “January 2020 will mark the transition of this steel factory into sustainable mass timber production, and we plan to open the new plant in mid-2021, which will provide 130 jobs upon startup.
Mass timber stands to revolutionize the commercial and residential construction industry, transforming wood into cross-laminated timber (CLT), a more environmentally- and cost-friendly alternative to structural steel and concrete. CLT uses densely-layered lumber panels, adhered such that they become immensely strong and resilient. “Mass timber is being used today in six-story mid-rise construction, and in the near future with some building code changes, we’ll be able to go up to 18 stories in the U.S. and 12 stories in Canada,” says Wentzel.
Structurlam chose Conway as its hub for U.S. expansion due to its close access to transportation corridors in southern U.S. markets, and its close proximity to southern Arkansas’ large supply of sustainable pine forests, which, according to another conference attendee Gov. Asa Hutchinson, “Arkansas has 19 million acres of sustainable timber land, meaning that nearly 50% of our state is forested.” Structurlam intends to exploit that area, hopefully with an intent to maintain Arkansas’ natural resources, while simultaneously breathing new life into Arkansas’ lumber industry.
Additionally, Structurlam was enticed to Arkansas by Walmart, which became financial backers of Structurlam after inviting them to build their new international headquarters in Bentonville. “We wanted our new corporate campus to be modern and sustainable, while embracing Arkansas’ natural beauty, solely using wood from Arkansas trees,” says Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs. “Our new Home Office will be the largest mass timber project in the U.S., and we’re so excited to be a part of the process at every level.”
While it will be the largest, Walmart’s new headquarters isn’t going to be Structurlam’s sole project. Hutchinson hopes that mass timber will become another growing and vibrant Arkansas industry, noting the need for multiple mass timber developments. “I want you to know we’re constructing a new dormitory for the Arkansas Fire Academy in Camden, and we’ve decided it will be constructed with mass timber.” Conway Mayor Bart Castlebury also announced his city’s next big project, a multi-story parking deck built from CLT.
Closing the conference was Congressman Bruce Westerman, whose background as an engineer and forester provided a personal connection to Structurlam’s new plant. “A lot of people don’t realize that the forestry industry is on par with the automotive and chemical industries in terms of size and employment, this new plant is going to be a huge boost to the local economy,” says Westerman. “But this milestone we celebrate today is transformational for the way we act as good stewards for our environment and natural resources.”
Westerman pointed to the 1.1 million sq. ft of wood going into Walmart’s new facility will sequester 15 to 20 million pounds of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Westerman also mentioned Structurlam’s policy of replanting more trees than they take, leading to further carbon capture. “This market creates a demand for mass timber, which creates a need to plant trees and maintain forests. The markets are motivating healthy forests.”
Westerman closed by stating his intention to introduce legislation to Congress meant to promote sustainable forestry across the country. Going further in depth after the conference, he explained “Basically, the bill will plant more trees, grow more wood and store more carbon. We’ll have initiatives to plant more trees in urban and marginal agricultural areas, and it’ll also include a plan to proactively maintain our federal and private forests,” says Westerman. “That’s an effort to stop these massive forest fires which millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.”
Structurlam will begin redeveloping the former steel plant this January, with a projected starting production date in July 2021. “The future is not a place we are going, but a place we are creating today in partnership with Conway and the state of Arkansas,” says Wentzel.