Each year, specialty publisher BuildingGreen selects 10 of its favorite green products, the ones with the potential to “transform the industry” by conserving energy or water, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or otherwise shepherding the building world toward a better future.
This year’s Top 10 list included a mixed bag of products—a new kind of battery, an electric lawnmower, water piping, a composting toilet—and something called Accoya acetylated wood. Accoya is a brand name for a type of softwood lumber, mostly Radiata pine, that has been treated with a chemical called acetic anhydride, which BuildingGreen describes as “really strong vinegar.” After treatment, the wood has gained remarkable performance characteristics at a very low environmental cost.
Unlike most pressure-treated wood, acetylated lumber doesn’t contain any copper or biocides that can leach into the environment over time. The treatment renders the wood harder, more dimensionally stable and immune to insects. Accoya lasts for 50 years above grade, 25 years in contact with the ground or submerged in fresh water, and has a service life of 70 years, according to its manufacturer.
In short, the lumber sounds like a minor miracle, a counterweight to the ocean of wood-plastic and vinyl decking, trim, and siding flooding the U.S. market. It’s an appealing alternative to standard grades of treated Southern yellow pine. So why, you’d have to wonder, would 5 million board feet of the stuff produced under a different brand name by a respected U.S. chemical manufacturer be relegated to a warehouse in North Carolina and sold in dribs and drabs to anyone who could be talked into trying it?
To answer that, we will meet Gary Weinstein, an independent sales representative and a booster extraordinaire for acetylated lumber.
A chemical producer sees an opportunity
Acetylation, the chemical process that transforms the cellular structure of the wood, has been studied for more than 70 years, manufacturer Accsys Technologies says. Accoya has been on the market since 2007. It’s now sold in more than 45 countries, and is widely available in the U.S. through a number of distributors. It comes rough, and can be milled into products ranging from decking to exterior trim.
Accoya is made with Radiata pine from New Zealand and other certified softwoods that are shipped to the sole treatment plant in the Netherlands. The complex process generates acetic acid as a byproduct, a compound so harmless it’s sold for reuse to a number of industries, including food producers, Accsys says. The treated lumber is non-toxic and, according to the manufacturer, fully biodegradable.
If the acetylation of wood seems almost too good to be true, consider how excited executives at Eastman Chemical Company must have been when they realized they were sitting on a potential gold mine. Eastman, a major chemical manufacturer based in Kingsport, Tenn., made more acetic anhydride than anyone else in the world, Weinstein said in an interview last winter.
Eastman used acetic anhydride to produce cellulose acetate, which was turned into photographic film. Eastman would pulp wood to break it down into its constituent fibers, add acetic anhydride, and out would come acetate. It was a great business, right until the point when the film industry succumbed to digital photography. Photographic film became a specialty item stocked for diehards in the photo world. The market for cellulose acetate was all but dead.
“When the film business basically collapsed, they were stuck with an enormous productive capacity of a very high-margin chemical, and that’s the acetic anhydride,” Weinstein said. There was lots and lots of capacity, and no way of using it.
Along comes Perennial Wood
At the time, Accoya was being produced in Europe, and Eastman saw the potential for it in the U.S. A collaboration with Accsys would provide new markets for acetylated lumber, while helping Eastman make use of its manufacturing capabilities. So, Weinstein said, Eastman developed an acetylated wood manufacturing line capable of turning out a “lesser version of Accoya” designed for above-ground use.
The company’s location in Tennessee gave it excellent access to the forests of the Southeast. Eastman had been only “peripherally involved” in the lumber business, seeing it as a source of fiber but not buying lumber at the stump or processing it lumber mills. Now, however, the company began snapping up high-grade C and better yellow pine.
“It was a pretty extraordinary effort on their part to get into the business,” Weinstein said.
The product line was relatively small, but in 2012 Eastman began selling the lumber as Perennial Wood, rolling it out at the International Builders’ Show and touting the “TruLast” treatment that gave it such enviable properties.
“Let’s hope that this is the beginning of the end for pressure-treated lumber,” Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter wrote in May 2012. He wasn’t alone. Newer treatments had replaced chromated copper arsenate, but they came with environmental or performance trade-offs. Acetylated lumber didn’t.
A brief experiment
Eastman’s flirtation with the next great thing in treated lumber would be brief. By the spring of 2014, the company announced it was pulling the plug on Perennial Wood—not because there was anything wrong with the product, but because Eastman couldn’t develop the market fast enough.
“The product is great, but the economics just weren’t sustainable,” Eastman vice president for marketing Tim Dell told Professional Deck Builder magazine in 2014. According to Dell, Eastman was faced with a choice: build a bigger factory and scale up the business, or shut the operation down.
Eastman washed its hands of the lumber business and sold the remaining stock to Snavely Forest Products, which moved 5 million board feet of this prime treated lumber into a North Carolina warehouse.
For a big, profitable company like Eastman, the decision wasn’t crazy. Eastman was grossing $9 billion a year, Weinstein said, which is $24 million in sales every day. The company had hoped the Perennial Wood business would bring in maybe $20 million a year.
“When they made this go away, it was like they had crumbs on their tie and they were just brushing it aside,” Weinstein said. “That’s it. There wasn’t any, ‘Oh, sh*t, now what do we do?’ They were losing money. It was painful. Painful.”
Amy Lewis, who handled publicity for Perennial Wood during its two-year run, said in a telephone interview that Eastman was a “B-to-B company,” more familiar with industry deals than launching a consumer product. It takes a lot to launch a new product, she said, with high marketing costs and lower profitability as a product like Perennial Wood becomes established. It was the same battle wood-plastic composites fought in the beginning.
Lewis said she was “saddened” by Eastman’s decision to close up shop.
Weinstein was less charitable. Why did the wood end up in a warehouse rather than on decks across the country? “Hubris,” he said.
“It takes a long time to become an overnight sensation. Eastman lost the patience to grow the market,” he continued. “It takes years/money to create a brand.”
Clark Spitzer, Snavely’s chief operating officer, said by email the company was surprised by Eastman’s decision.
“Eastman had a good product in Perennial Wood and their marketing was world-class,” he said. “They were very early in the product life cycle and the return on their investment was longer than the new (at the time) CEO was willing to wait. The new CEO pulled the plug on the project abruptly.”
Remaining stock trades hands
By the time Snavely acquired the remaining stock of Perennial Wood, Weinstein was fully on board with acetylated lumber. He’d bounced around the wood industry, getting interested first in thermally modified lumber and working on a manufacturing venture that ultimately failed. The first time he saw Perennial Wood, he was hooked.
“The first time I saw it at Lowe’s, I was blown away,” he said. “I could not believe how spectacular this wood looked. It was absolutely gorgeous. I wanted in. I wanted to participate in this.”
As soon as Eastman made its announcement, Weinstein contacted Snavely and began working with the company to build a market for Perennial Wood and unload the warehoused remnants of Eastman’s business.
Weinstein, who lives in Maine, contacted builders, architects, and anyone else who might be interested. With all the zeal of a true believer, Weinstein “bent over backwards” to make deals, selling siding for $5 to $6 per sq. ft. and acetylated decking for as little as $2 per running ft.
He saw an opportunity to make some money, but he also viewed acetylated wood as a much more attractive option than cutting tropical hardwoods, like ipé, which perform very well but come with a stiff environmental price.
“It’s funny how none of the people selling imported tropical hardwoods discuss current standing inventory,” Weinstein said in an email. “On average, 50 acres of forest have to be cleared for one merchantable tree. Second, 55% of all tropical hardwoods are consumed as a fuel source by indigenous populations. Third, the reason lesser species and grades of tropical hardwoods are sold has to do with the fact that they are in scarce supply. In some markets, scarcity drives up price.”
What’s in a name?
If it’s so great, why didn’t Perennial Wood take off? To Weinstein, some of that has to do with cost, and a lot to one word: “acetylated.”
“It was pretty pricey stuff,” he said. “One of the marketing dilemmas was: You say the word ‘acetylated’ and people don’t know what you’re talking about. They think it’s potential hazardous to one’s health. It never ceases to amaze me how the consuming public just doesn’t fundamentally grasp much about anything.”
Consumers react to marketing, buying things whose names are familiar. In the deck business, there’s no better example than Trex, the original plastic-wood composite and an unrelenting marketer.
“Based on this sort of gestalt of what Trex is, your neighbor says, ‘Oh, that’s good stuff,’ “ Weinstein said. “So the person who puts it down gets that affirmation they made a good choice, not because it’s necessarily a good choice from a scientific standpoint but from brand awareness and that affirmation you get, the pat on the back, that somehow you made a wise decision. So there’s that whole other thing going on that has nothing to do with longevity or performance or sustainability. It has to do with seeing it in some magazine.
“To try to communicate the owner benefits of acetylated wood is very, very difficult,” he continued. “As soon as I say acetic anhydride, someone thinks, ‘No doubt it causes cancer,’ or there’s something inherently scary about it.”
In fact, Weinstein said, Eastman invented the TruLast label to describe the technology just so it would never have to say “acetylated” or “acetic anhydride.”
Don’t forget the risk-adverse building products industry
There was something else at work, Weinstein said: the inherent conservative bent of the building products industry, its reluctance to go out on a limb with a product that dealers might get stuck with.
Earlier this year, Weinstein was trying to get lumberyards to buy some of the Snavely stock, but even great deals were sometimes not enough.
“I had a siding project in the summer,” he said. “It was about 40% of a truck. I told a lumberyard I would pay the freight on the full truck and I wouldn’t charge them for the 60% that wasn’t siding until they sold the inventory. They wouldn’t bite. I was like, ‘I don’t understand why you wouldn’t bring in something and basically have me as a sales person to educate your customers. All you have to do is refer them to me and I go out and meet them and refer business to you.’ And the answer was not only ‘No’—it was ‘F*ck, no.’”
But Weinstein also understands the reluctance, particularly in the years following the financial meltdown of 2008, a black era that crippled the construction industry. “I get it,” he said. “I do understand the purchasing guy. He’s not supposed to reinvent the wheel. They are not entrepreneurs—no one is paying these purchasing guys to be heroes. There’s an inherent conservative dynamic in the business.”
Ironically, while Snavely struggles to find outlets for its stockpile of acetylated lumber, Accoya has a number of U.S. distributors listed at its website, including a Rex Lumber outlet in Acton, Mass. (Snavely also sells Accoya). Dave Thompson, a Rex salesman, said that Accoya is turned into decking, trim, molding, or whatever else the customer wants. Rex sells it for between $7 and $8 per board ft. (unmilled), about the same price as western red cedar.
“We sell it all over the country,” Thompson said.
Could Perennial Wood make a comeback?
A new factory for acetylated lumber would cost $150 million and require absolute command of the tricky technical details of the process, one industry insider said. So Eastman won’t be getting back into the production of acetylated lumber itself. But it has been talking with potential partners. Pablo Bustamante, the company’s director of corporate strategy, spoke with GBA earlier this year and said that Eastman has been taking calls from people who are interested in the acetylation technology. “All sorts of people,” he said.
Eastman’s assets include the technology and a small-scale production line, what Bustamante said was more than a pilot facility but not one commercial in scale. The more interesting calls come from people in the building products industry who understand marketing and see the potential value of acetylated lumber.
“We see different kinds of people and companies with different levels of credibility,” Bustamante said.
Snavely still owns millions of linear feet of acetylated wood—exactly how much the company declined to say.
“We continue to sell the Perennial as Perennial,” Spitzer said. “We are also re-manufacturing some of the wood that was modified by Eastman into an entry-level decking product. This is designed to get acetylated wood into the market at a price point to see if it can be commercialized as a viable deck board. Lowe’s has shown some interest, as have other building material dealers. Ideally, we will have some pilot decks in the marketplace this year but would expect to see a big push in time for the decking season.
“We are currently distributing some Accoya and see this as the future of acetylated wood,” he continued. “Whether it can be commercialized into a decking product in the U.S. still remains to be seen. However, we remain extremely optimistic and committed to this new technology.”
In the meantime, Weinstein thinks he’s finally hit on the ultimate solution for selling job-lot size orders of Perennial Wood: a website called Build Direct. The retailer’s network of shippers can cut freight costs substantially and make the lumber affordable even for builders who are buying it a job at a time.
“The original distribution model that Eastman used failed,” he said. “These are the magic beans. That’s how we’re going to sell this stuff. Really, if you can buy toilet paper at Amazon, why shouldn’t you be able to buy decking on Build Direct?”
Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at GBA and Fine Homebuilding magazine.
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