Timber Construction & Wood Shortage

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How the Pandemic Has Impacted the Lumber Construction Industry

First it was toilet paper, Lysol spray, and then hand sanitizer.

What’s next on the pandemic product shortage list?

For the construction industry and those looking to build or remodel a home, the lumber shortage is palpable.

In an analysis by the National Association of Home Builders, new homes cost approximately $36,000 more because of the epic deficit of lumber, and lumber prices have tripled since June 2020, soaring to more than $1,300 per 1,000 board feet. 

“We’re facing a real shortage of wood, and it’s being felt in all aspects of construction,” said Daniel Connolly, PE and founder/owner of Connolly Engineering, a structural engineering firm serving the NYC and Hudson Valley Area.

The Status of Wood Construction Pre-Pandemic

From its self-support strength and beauty to its practical applications, wood continues to be a highly desirable building material.

“Because of its positive environmental impact, performance, and versatility, wood has always been in demand, but in recent years, there has been both good and bad news for timber construction,” relayed Connolly. 

Perhaps one of the most positive changes has been with building codes. The 2021 International Building Code (IBC) provides the ability to build wood buildings taller than ever before. The tallest mass timber structure (different from conventional light-frame construction) in North America is currently 18 stories.

“Codes continue to change to allow taller timber structures. This has given the entire industry more flexibility in planning and execution. Our office is currently working on a five-story conventional light-frame structure we believe will be the first in our area.,” said Connolly. 

To support the codes to allow for taller timber structures, the engineered lumbers have gotten better, stronger, and more durable. 

Bigger structures, better wood…all good, right?

Effects of the Pandemic 

Like nearly every other industry, the timber market has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. 

When Covid and lockdowns hit, sawmills subsequently shut down operations. This halted lumber production to brace for a housing slump that never came (more on that shortly!). 

By April 2020, U.S. wood production was down 16% from January 2020.

While all this was happening, the housing market got red hot. During the pandemic, if people weren’t buying, they were DIY’ing. We’ve seen…

  • Home prices increase 16% over the past year 
  • An increasing number of consumers buying new homes and existing homeowners making improvements
  • Construction spending increased in 2020 – a 4.8% increase over total construction spending in 2019 – mostly due to the almost 12% increase in residential construction

All facets of construction are now facing downward industry pressure coming from astronomical rises in material costs across the board not only for timber, but other materials like steel as well. Here in the U.S., there is a widely-reported shortage of pressure-treated pine and softwood framing lumber used predominantly in new home and deck construction. Contractors are having major difficulties sourcing lumber, and even when they can find it, prices have elevated dramatically. 

“Not only has it surprised me, it’s just surprised the whole industry, how quickly we came roaring back. Housing and construction, repair and remodel, that’s where so much money was pointed by American consumers that the sheer scale of demand was hard to fathom,” said Stinson Dean, CEO of Deacon Lumber, a lumber trading company based in Missouri.

Added Connolly, “Production slowdowns during the pandemic and a robust bounce back in the industry have made it hard for suppliers to keep up. Timber is two to three times the cost it was pre-pandemic.”

Is There a Vaccine For These Timber Prices?

With the height of the building season – late spring and summer – upon us, Connolly predicts conditions won’t change in the near future. 

“The skyrocketing prices may start to cause people to delay new construction in the hopes material prices will start to relax a bit. It’s not likely to happen during the peak building months and until projects already underway are completed. There has to be a reversion to the mean with respect to material prices, it’s just hard to predict when.” said Connolly.

Though the pandemic has greatly impacted construction, rest assured that Connolly Engineering is the best partner to guide you through the present challenges and in the days to come.

From design conception to construction completion, we have the experience and expertise to consult on all your civil and structural engineering projects. Contact us here, and let’s discuss your next project!