While U.S. builders explore new supply sources from China, suppliers in North America are trying to gain a foothold in the Orient. Among the major hurdles: Higher prices for U.S. products, competition from Chinese suppliers, distribution snafus, and cultural differences.

U.S.-China Build (USCB), based in Portland, Ore., is attempting to overcome those obstacles. Program director Rose Braden points to several accomplishments since USCB started just over four years ago with $350,000 in seed money from the Department of Commerce:

  • More than 150 U.S. companies have participated in the group's trade missions to China, resulting in projected and actual sales of more than $13 million. Among the firms exhibiting their products at mini-trade fairs in 2005: Calorique (heating systems), Gulf South Forest Products (Southern Yellow Pine), HMI Worldwide (cellulose insulation), Pella (windows), United Coatings (paint), Weyerhaeuser (trusses), and WFI International (geothermal heating).
  • Some 1,600 Chinese construction specialists attended USCB technical sessions in such hot housing markets as
  • Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. Seminars in the fall of 2005 focused on how to incorporate American wood products into home interiors.
  • USCB publishes both a supplier directory and a bi-annual Chinese language newspaper, featuring design and technical information on U.S. building products.
  • However, the Chinese have been reluctant to move from concrete to wood as the basic structural material for housing. But, with rising incomes—China now has a million plus millionaires—there's more interest in Western-style homes.

    “Developers in China are starting to look for an edge to differentiate their projects,” says Braden, “and that can include design, energy-efficient features, or environmentally-friendly materials.”

    While they hope to answer those needs, U.S. building supply companies have a long way to go to tip the trade balance with China. In one key product area alone—forest products—Chinese exports to the U.S. totaled nearly $1.5 billion in 2004, a 63 percent increase from the prior year, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. In the same year, the U.S. exported just $367 million in forest products to China.