Design and automation improve competitiveness of solid wood construction

Finland’s largest log house manufacturer, Kontiotuote Oy, is improving its productivity by investing in design and industrial automation. The company has its own architecture and construction design units that employ as many people as actual production. “We use the industrial Internet, where design directs production. We can already see that strengthening investments in design has improved productivity,” says Jalo Poijula, Managing Director of Kontiotuote Oy.

Thanks to automation, all ducts needed for HVAC and electrical installations are realised at the factory rather than at the construction site. “This saves a tremendous amount of time and takes industrial production even further than before. Because today’s construction work is done at the drafting table and factory, it is worthwhile to invest financially in design, as well,” Poijula notes.

The goal of Kontiotuote is to manufacture safe, healthy houses using the newest technology. “We have found that it is good to review every work phase from a traditional manual standpoint, and then apply what we learn to robotics, which improves productivity.”

Poijula encourages municipalities to use wood construction

Poijula views wood construction as extremely significant for provinces and regional economies. “Society should utilise wood in public construction notably more than it does today. Wood is beneficial for the municipal and national economy overall. With good architecture we can create a pleasant environment and build houses that do not have indoor air problems.”

One cubic metre of processed solid logs requires four cubic metres of raw timber. Twelve truckloads of timber arrive at the factory for processing each day. “We get twice as much wood fuel and raw materials for cellulose than we use for processing timber into construction products, transporting it and logistics,” Poijula calculates.

In Pudasjärvi, two municipal office buildings, a hotel, day-care centre and Metsähallitus offices have been realised using solid wood solutions, and construction of an educational campus is underway that will house a primary and junior high school, secondary school, special-needs classrooms and a gymnasium. “Of course there has been suspicion and resistance, but now all the parties are satisfied. We have tried to bring modular thinking to log construction, as well, so buildings can later be expanded or modified for various needs alongside changes in the cityscape.”

Sanctions against Russia cut exports by half

Poijula prefers to discuss solid wood construction rather than log construction, as modern technical laminated log beams have almost completely replaced traditional hewn and round logs. Round log structures are still exported to Russia, for example for church construction, but other than that they have been replaced by laminated log construction both in exports and in Finland.

Kontiotuote’s exports to Russia were hard hit by EU sanctions and the decline in value of the ruble. “Customers got scared, our orders dropped by six million euros and we lost 20 workplaces. But while exports have declined, we have of course not entirely withdrawn from business in Russia.”

As part of the PRT-Forest corporation, Kontiotuote has a sales network in 29 countries and a fifth of its turnover comes from exports. Exports to Japan were affected by the pressure of an anticipated increase in VAT, which pushed back investment decisions. Exports to Sweden have grown, and this year the company has entered a brand new market by delivering log structures to ski resorts in Iran. “In addition to sanctions against Russia, the sulphur tax and freight forwarding increase export costs and decrease competitive capability, even though there is a lot of potential in exports.”

Possibilities for wood construction are not well-known

Poijula sees a strong future for solid wood construction. “My vision is based on societal trends that support wood construction. It is ecological, renewable and safe, making it a strong brand for the industrial construction market. Wood construction captures almost twice its own weight in carbon dioxide. Concrete construction, on the other hand, produces more of it.”

“In Europe, particularly in France and Germany, construction material that is renewable carries a lot of weight. We here in Finland we are more concerned with safe, good-quality indoor air and health. More and more young families are now contacting us to ask whether their own plans for houses can be realised with log construction.”

According to Poijula, savings and cost-efficiency in wood construction come from industrial prefabrication and the fact that in solid wood solutions the wall is always ready. At the Pudasjärvi log school, for example, wood components made up ten per cent of total costs, the same percentage as concrete elements would have cost.

One obstacle Poijula sees for wood construction is that architects and designers are not familiar with the potential uses and suitability of solid wood in public building construction. “The problem for wood construction is incorrect attitudes. When people are accustomed to using concrete in construction, they keep doing it with blinders on even though competitive materials and solutions are introduced to the market. They don’t dare to leave the comfort zone, because what is new seems frightening,” says Poijula.

“Preconceptions about log construction are based on old-style wood construction of holiday cottages. Solid wood construction is competitive, meets insulation and fire regulations and is architecturally suitable for the environment. It does not cause extra repair and maintenance costs,” Poijula reiterates.

Article Service Markku Laukkanen