You didn’t need to be a design-build contractor to hear about soaring lumber prices over the last year. It was national news and talk on the street as costs of lumber skyrocketed by more than 170% between April 2020 and mid-September, according to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). It reached an all-time high at $1515 per thousand board feet this past May, but has fallen 68% since then according to Fortune magazine. But Bank of America and other sources warn that lumber costs could rise again over the next few weeks. The reason? Two possible causes could be the weather, says BofA. Like 2020, wildfires could impact supply (see below) and the upcoming hurricane season could cause demand spikes.
Besides lumber, other supplies needed to complete projects were also in short supply. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index (CCI) over 70% of contractors experienced a shortage of at least one material and over 30% reported a shortage of lumber during the 4th quarter of 2020.
Akin to Turf’s recent article on a plant shortages report, causes were both general (a shortage of labor in manufacturing; shipping issues; and a frenzy of home projects inspired by stay-at-home pandemic mandates) and industry specific. In the lumber industry, 2020’s wildfires in the Northwest greatly reduced the high-grade lumber supplies produced in states like Oregon and Washington. Other supply chains were equally challenged. Fires also ravaged South America’s tropical forests; and the Canadian lumber industry continued to battle the decades-long beetle infestation that’s plagued it. Even German mills cut back on production of their beech wood supplies given the country’s ongoing problems with drought and pests.
As a result, many American builders and suppliers have now expanded their search to Europe and Asia to meet growing lumber demands. This includes turning to durable, tropical hardwoods like yellow balau as a high-grade alternative to exotic products like ipe, teak, cumaru, walnut, and mahogany.
The Yellow Balau Alternative
Produced primarily in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, yellow balau has been used throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand for the past 30 years for outdoor projects ranging from the building of decks and fencing to the construction of pergolas and other outdoor structures. That’s primarily because European builders in many cases have been far more practical about the specification of lesser-known woods, which actually rival the durability, aesthetics, physical properties, and pricing of the hardwoods traditionally used in the U.S.
Normally free of blemishes and knots, yellow balau is highlighted by its stunning blend of golden-brown, purplish-brown and red undertones and hues. Over time and if left unfinished, the hardwood will also age beautifully with either a deep brown finish when kept oiled or a gray patina that’s similar to ipe.
Yellow balau will initially appear lighter in color but will darken to a medium honey brown once exposed to UV. Applying a high-quality, oil-based stain will help retain the natural color but many users prefer to let it age naturally to a silver patina. Yellow balau takes dark brown and medium brown stains very well. Red or mahogany stains tend to give off an orange cast.
Furthermore, yellow balau is an incredibly sturdy, strong, and durable hardwood that is naturally resistant to decay, insects, and fungus. For this reason, it is ideal for both residential and commercial applications performed in demanding oceanfront and marine environments. As an example, it’s even been used in Europe to build ships, boats, bridges, and boardwalks.
Given the current state of the lumber industry, U.S. contractors will increasingly need to assess the high-grade, exotic products available to them on a consistent and timely basis. Yellow balau is just one example of exotic alternatives that not only provide long-lasting, beautiful results, but are also readily-available from leading U.S.-based distributors and suppliers. A vibrant choice for both indoor and outdoor structures designed to last for decades, builders should familiarize themselves with such high-quality alternatives. Unfortunately, American builders have not typically used anywhere near the number of tropical hardwoods that are employed throughout the European building marketplace.
However, this will have to change if the industry is to stay competitive, productive, and busy. The abundant supply of high-quality tropical lumber material that was once accessible across North America a few years ago will not likely return anytime soon. Don’t fall prey to the rapidly constricting lumber marketplace. Specifying exotic alternatives could make the difference between a roster of satisfied customers and referrals or a future of doubt filled with questions.
Getsiv is President and CEO of Nova USA Wood Products, a leading supplier of superior, high-quality hardwood products and accessories.