The UK timber industry is beginning to flourish as architects and designers stop relying on imports and look to become more sustainable by choosing hardwood from our native woodlands says Tom Barnes of Vastern Timber

 Wood is one of the most sustainable building materials available. From the very process of growing trees, forests and woodlands epitomises the core of sustainability.  As well as absorbing 800Kg of carbon per cubed metre of timber, trees and woodlands provide habitats for other flora and fauna and have an important role in flood prevention. Once a tree is harvested it is a simple and natural process to plant another tree to replace it. The cycle of sustainability continues in the most natural way possible.

The processing chain for timber is also very energy efficient. Turning basic timber into a wood product requires little in the way of energy, but often much in the way of skill, care and dedication. And once a final product has been produced it can last many years, even centuries.

So why have we become so reliant on imported hardwood?  A big part of the reason for our reliance on imported wood is that the level of demand can’t possibly be met by the UK timber industry alone. In reality the UK would have trouble satisfying perhaps a quarter of the demand for hardwood. According to Timber Trade Federation figures, 43% of all timber products used in the UK in 2013 were British grown. But that includes softwoods, for which we certainly have a great deal of capacity. When you look at hardwoods, only 6% of hardwoods used in the UK are native. Unfortunately we have only 13% forest cover in the UK and this figure is amongst the lowest in Europe. 72% of British woodlands are privately owned and of these 64% are unmanaged with only 22% of private woodland independently certified. All this adds up to an industry that does not appear to have the capability to deliver on demand.

It is also true that until recently the UK hardwood industry has not promoted British timber well enough to be able to compete with foreign importers.  But it is crucial that architects and designers understand the wider importance and benefits of specifying British woods over foreign imports where they can.

By using British wood we are protecting, valuing and putting something back into our own woodlands. We are also supporting our domestic industry and safeguarding jobs. It’s difficult to put an economic value on all of that, but we all want those woodlands to be there, we all want to reduce our environmental impact, and we all want to protect our own economy, so we should be using what’s on our doorstep and reducing the amount timber we are importing if we want wood to be a truly sustainable material.

While UK hardwood remains competitive on price, depending on the species and grade, it cannot promise to be any cheaper than imported timber. However, the UK timber industry can offer a wider variety of grades and specifications than imported wood, for example length, width and thickness of boards, and crucially we can offer a stronger narrative behind the wood being used. Imported wood is very generic and you don’t get any feel of where it has come from, but in the UK we have an ability to link the woodland, the community, the processor and the user.

Architects need to understand that there are commercial volumes of hardwoods and speciality softwoods in this country, so they should be asking for it. Don’t assume it’s not there, don’t assume it’s more expensive, and don’t assume that you are limited to the grades and specifications that are generically available with imported wood. So even the design possibilities for architects and designers are greatly increased through using British wood.

As seen in Building Innovations Dec 2014