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The Swedish forest products giant is putting its money on increased low-carbon timber construction. Mike Jeffree reports

Construction generates 40% of global GHG emissions, so decarbonizing it is among the critical challenges countries face to achieve net zero targets. To achieve it, the growing consensus is that the industry will increasingly have to switch from energy intensive, finite material-based building products to bio-based products, notably engineered wood.

One company very clearly expressing its confidence that this will be the case is Swedish forest products giant Södra. Earlier this year it officially inaugurated its new cross laminated timber factory at Värö on the west coast of Sweden, home to its vast sawmill and pulp complex. The forest owners’ cooperative operation was already a CLT producer, but the new facility increases its capacity a dramatic tenfold.

The business started production at its first CLT plant in 2019 and since then has seen demand grow exponentially. It consequently began building the new facility late 2020 and the first CLT rolled off the production line in the summer of 2022.

Södra Building Systems market director Urban Blomster did not divulge the cost of the plant, but described it as ‘significant’.

“It is an important investment that both provides the market with a solution that can help the entire construction industry reach climate goals, and further secures the processing of our 52,000 forest owner members’ raw material,” he said.

The plant, which has created 90 new jobs, has capacity to produce 80,000m3 of CLT annually, ten times more than Södra’s first factory, which is also at Värö. That’s enough, it maintains, to provide ‘framing material’ for 4,000 homes.

“We are not yet at full capacity,” said Mr Blomster. “But the fine tuning of the factory has started and it will move towards capacity in step with progress in process optimization and market development. We are satisfied with progress so far.”

The principal production line technology is from Slovenian manufacturer Ledinek, which also supplied the machinery for Södra’s first CLT plant.

“We selected Ledinek because it supplies a reliable system solution that provides security for us and for our customers,” said Södra’s production manager Krister Norberg. “Lessons learned from the existing production line have also been taken into account in the procurement of the equipment for the new, larger facility. It features state-of-the-art technology and the layout ensures maximum efficiency and productivity.”

“The system enables us to produce panels up to 3.5mx16m, with thicknesses up to 280mm comprising seven layers,” said Mr Blomster.

Södra’s CLT is being taken up across the construction sector, he added.

“There aren’t really that many restrictions on what you can build in CLT,” he said. “It can be particularly advantageous for apartment blocks, schools and halls, but it can be used for many other building types. At the same time we advocate using the right product in the right place and in some applications a combination of materials provides the level of strength required. Wood should be used smartly, where it does best.”

The business also sees engineered wood making increasing inroads in healthcare construction.

“In hospital building wood is also increasingly being discussed as an option, with the aim of taking advantage of the positive health benefits it can deliver,” said Mr Blomster. “There are many different studies now that indicate by maximising the positive properties of wood, you can create healthy living environments that promote people’s well-being and productivity.”

Södra also maintains that its CLT, with a carbon footprint of 34kg/CO2 e/m3, has the ‘lowest climate impact on the market’.

“This is thanks to our fossil-free nurseries, sawmills and other production facilities, sustainably managed forest and use of biofuel powered transportation,” said Mr Blomster, adding that the Värö factory is powered with green energy generated at the neighbouring pulp mill, while its raw material is mostly sourced from Södra members’ forests in southern Sweden within a radius of 100km of the plant. The end result, it is claimed, is that a building in its CLT has 20% of the climate impact of an equivalent structure in pre-fabricated concrete.

The CLT’s carbon credentials are also validated with Environmental Product Declarations, which provide full lifecycle analysis and other impact data. Third party verified, these, says Södra, ‘make it easier to compare the climate impact of different materials and components with the same function and to choose sustainable alternatives and thus make a difference to the climate’.

The business also backs its CLT with design and engineering consultancy and support, ‘from planning through to construction’. It creates digital models from architects’ drawings and calculations, which then generate cutting instructions for the machinery in the factory. “This results in construction elements that not only fit perfectly, but are also pre-prepared with milled tracks for cables, piping and other services, which allows construction time to be reduced significantly,” said Södra. “Thanks to this, the time between architect’s vision and finished project has never been shorter.”

So far Södra has focused its CLT sales effort on the Nordic region, but says its Värö plant is well situated to serve a wider customer base.

“Our market to date has been the south of Sweden, where CLT building is increasingly prevalent and we have the advantage of being a local supplier,” said Mr Blomster. “We are also well located to sell to Denmark, where there is also increasing CLT demand, and we additionally export to Norway and Iceland.

“The UK is also, of course, a potential market for us, depending on how [timber construction] continues to develop. With ships sailing from the nearby port of Varberg, we know that we are competitive.”

Looking ahead, Södra sees further opportunities to develop CLT operations.

“Our aim is to support the development of the engineered wood market and to expand in line with its growth,” said Mr Blomster.

At the official inauguration of the new plant in March this year, CEO Lotta Lyrå said the organisation had its sights set on being the leading solid timber construction products operation in the Nordic region.

“Södra’s assignment is to renew and improve the value of [our members’] forest estates and our new CLT facility is one way to do exactly that,” she said. “Our members, employees and customers continue to work together to build stronger value chains that enable us to meet society’s demand for sustainable and innovative products.”