Walk down the halls of the Home2 Suites when it opens this fall in Mount Pleasant, and it won't seem much different than any other hotel.
But just beneath the surface, the hotel is breaking new ground, developers say. Its corridors will be supported by cross-laminated timber, a relatively new form of lumber that hasn't been tried before in a commercial building in South Carolina.
The concept is fairly simple. Planks of wood are stacked like a big Jenga set, glued together and pressed into panels maybe six inches thick.
The result is surprisingly robust. Cross-laminated timber is said to be comparable in strength to steel and concrete, but far lighter and easier to construct. The thick layering makes it fire-resistant, and unlike steel, wood doesn't melt in intense heat.
Perhaps most importantly, it's faster to screw in wood panels than to pour concrete, so buildings can rise with less time and fewer hands - a big plus at a moment when construction workers are hard to come by.
"We see the potential that we could use this more and more not only on floor systems but also on walls," said Bruce Collins, regional director of development at Spartanburg-based OTO Development, which is building the Mount Pleasant hotel. "Even if it was 'quote-unquote' more expensive, the time savings would make it a pretty easy decision to make."
The Home2 project won't use cross-laminated timber extensively, Collins said. The corridors were an experiment to see how the costs would compare, so the new material will comprise only about 5 percent of the building's square footage.
Even after accounting for the lower labor costs, Collins figures the wood panels probably cost a little more than typical construction materials. But their price is inflated, in part, because they're typically manufactured in Europe with timber harvested on the continent. The hotel on James Nelson Road, for instance, uses panels made in Austria.
But Patricia Layton, the director of the Wood Utilization + Design Institute at Clemson University, says that could change as builders and researchers take more interest in the material. Cross-laminated timber is being used in a handful of projects in North America, including a dormitory in British Columbia and a hotel in Alabama.
Only in the last few years have researchers at Clemson looked at whether cross-laminated timber can hold up in wind-whipped, rain-drenched, humid weather on the coast and whether European manufacturing methods would work for Southern softwoods like yellow pine. (The early findings: It can, and they do.)
If the concept catches on in the U.S., it could give a boost to South Carolina's forestry industry, which represents one of the state's largest agricultural sectors.
The state produces forest products worth an estimated $13.1 billion a year, but most of South Carolina's timber is destined for paper mills. Layton says sawmills here have been short on demand for years, even as the state has had plenty of saw timber — the large trees destined to become lumber.
"We need markets for that saw timber, because our sawmills for several years have not run at capacity," Layton said. "We could easily sell lots of wood and impact the economy of our state."