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Chinese wood building shifts strategy

Russell Hixson
Chinese wood building shifts strategy

Chinese educators are spending three weeks this month honing their wood frame building skills at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).

The program consists of 50 per cent classroom instruction, 35 per cent hands-on training, and 15 per cent project visits.

"It’s a technology we take for granted here in North America," said John English, dean of applied and technical studies at UFV. "These structures are seismically sound and, when constructed correctly, have a long life."

Organized in conjunction with the Chinese National Ministry of Urban & Rural Housing Development, the program is sponsored by 11 Chinese vocational schools, nine building companies and Canada Wood, an industry coalition that represents Canada’s forest sector’s interests in offshore markets.

It’s the first program of its kind.

It’s also one facet of both governments’ long-term efforts to promote wood building in China.

Last week, Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Minister Steve Thomson and Tan Yueming, minister of housing and urban rural development in China’s Zhejiang province signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU).

The MOU calls on the two governments to promote the use of environmentally friendly low-carbon, wood-frame construction, develop wood-frame construction codes and standards for application in China, and organize exchange visits for government and representatives to share technical experience and knowledge.

B.C. will also increase co-operation with Zhejiang on wood-frame construction research, with a specific focus on local construction needs in Zhejiang province, including government-funded public building projects and home renovations.

It’s one of many agreements designed to push Chinese wood building forward.

The past 10 years have seen the Chinese wood building industry go from being almost non-existent to importing more than $1.4 billion in B.C. wood last year.

"Wood use and the requirement for wood import has grown massively over the past decade," said Paul Newman, director of Canada Wood.

But, it wasn’t easy.

Ken Baker, CEO of Forestry Innovation Investment (FII), said he and other groups spent years learning China’s power structures, culture and industry before making any headway.

"China has a huge construction program of residential and non-residential structures based almost entirely on cement and bricks," he said.

And there are many reasons for this.

China doesn’t have its own robust domestic forests, hasn’t developed the wood building infrastructure to support wood building and is still overcoming a construction culture geared towards non-wood materials.

Newman explained that China used to have a history of wood building, and even many older buildings, like temples are wood.

However, this changed in the communist era, when a new building philosophy emerged.

"The whole wood culture suffered," Newman said, but added that the interest level is returning.

Part of that interest is due to the environmental advantages of wood in a rapidly developing country, said both Baker and Newman.

They said it offers 400 times better insulation than steel and since wood-frame buildings are extremely energy efficient, they play a critical role in cutting carbon emissions.

In 2006, FII’s efforts paid off in its first major breakthrough, Baker said.

Government officials allowed B.C. wood truss-supported sloped roofs to be built rather than the traditional steel-supported flat roofs in Shanghai.

Two years later, government officials let B.C. use wood frame structures in reconstruction projects.

Connections with China have also benefited B.C., which boasts massive wood resources.

When the mountain pine beetle decimated millions of hectares of forest, China was able to soak up much of the salvage harvesting, said Newman.

But, the days of beetle damaged wood are numbered.

"We’re going back to a more normal diet of logs," he said. "We estimate right now there is something like 14,000 wood frame starts a year."

Newman said the challenge now is to grow the wood frame part of the consumption pie in preparation for the coming boom of high quality wood.

"It’s something that is in transition, but we are trying to accelerate it," Newman said.

"There’s an opportunity … If you don’t go there and develop it, it’s probably not going to happen."

According to the province, the value of wood exports to China this year is up 6.6 per cent.

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