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Columbia Falls Company Works To Build A Future With Cross-Laminated Timber

Workers in SmartLam's current facility in 2015
Corin Cates-Carney
Workers at Smartlam's Columbia Falls plant work on cross-laminated timber or CLT.

A young company in Columbia Falls is finding success in developing new construction material, and they’ve just received a federal grant to help push that success to the next stage.Earlier this month, Smartlam Technologies, in Columbia Falls, received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s the most recent of numerous grants awarded to company since it was created in 2012. These funding boosts are keeping Smartlam in the black as they develop the increasingly popular material of cross-laminated timber, known as CLT.

Inside the Smartlam plant, employees are stacking 2 x 8 boards of lumber in of the plants clam-shell-like presses. Most of the wood comes from within 200 miles of Columbia Falls.

Basically, cross-laminated timber is plywood on steroids. Replace the thin layers of wood veneer in standard plywood with huge planks of lumber, glue them together under twenty seven hundred pounds of pressure, and you have CLT.

The finished product looks like a slab of layered-criss-crossing wood, about the size of a wall. It’s super strong because of the layers of interlocking wood.

Smartlam cross-laminated timber.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney
Smartlam cross-laminated timber.

Because of the strength of CLT, Smartlam hopes its product it will eventually replace other, less renewable, materials in the building of homes and other structures.

Casey Malmquist, Smartlam’s General manager points to a sliding truck that starts dripping goo over the boards.

"The glue trolley sits in between them and shuttles back and forth between the two presses. The adhesive is a very special kind of adhesive. When applied properly it is stronger than the wood grain itself… So if that mat was put in a condition where it failed the wood fiber would come apart before the glue face came apart."

In Europe, CLT has already been used to construct  multi-story buildings.

"What’s exciting about this is that it is going to have a positive effect on the environment and you know, it really is going to transform how we do construction in the U.S."

American Plywood Association President, Ed Elias says the frequency of substituting wood for steel and concrete is growing.
"And plus is a carbon sink, from the context of the concern about climate change and global warming, we now have a renewable resource that can fill that void that would be addressed if you look at the life cycle and cost of concrete and steel versus wood products. So we’re starting to see this real attraction of using CLT."

The American Plywood Association will need to give Smartlam’s product a stamp of regulatory approval before the local company grows into a larger construction resource. Smartlam’s Malmquist expects that to happen within the next 6 months.

Smartlam is the only company in the U.S. making CLT.

In 10 years, Malmquist expects CLT to drive the way people build.

As of this year, CLT was included in the International Building Code. In Europe, CLT has been growing in popularity for the past 25 years. In the U.S., CLT is just getting started.

The USDA grant awarded through the Forest Service aims at promoting forest products and mass timber. Malmquist sas the grant was absolutely essential for the growth of the company.

"Getting a company into the black is a challenge, we’ve been successful in the sense that we’re still here and we’re still operating. But clearly new businesses can use that kind of support. We’re venturing off into an area that is untested here in the U.S."

Smartlam is the planning stage of a new a hundred and twenty acre plant in the Columbia Falls industrial park. It has around a $25 million price tag. Malmquist says Smartlam is still exploring financing options.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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