Sustainability has been a dominant theme in construction for many years. We all want the houses we build to be energy efficient and have a minimum environmental impact, and that sentiment extends to the specific materials we use in construction.

Fortunately, sustainable materials and energy efficient methods have become increasingly fashionable in the self-build market, from ground-source heating and natural ventilation, to reclaimed bricks and tiles, and it is often the case that sustainable materials add that certain something special to designs. Wood remains one of the most popular of materials in the self-build market, especially for sustainable designs. People appreciate both the inherent environmental benefits of wood, as well as the beautiful textures and design flexibility wood delivers.

However, we should be careful before concluding that simply using wood in our designs automatically ticks the sustainability box, because some wood is more sustainable than others.

It seems ridiculous to suggest that timber is in any way not a sustainable material. Surely timber represents one of the most sustainable materials known? Trees capture carbon as they grow, and the actual process of harvesting and replacing trees itself delivers huge environmental benefits. The process to turn raw timber into useable wood products is relatively energy efficient and certainly not as intensive as metals or plastics, and there is definitely no issue with end of life disposal, as untreated wood is naturally biodegradable and does not pollute.

However, we need to think of sustainability in terms of more than just environmental sustainability. It’s not just about carbon capture, energy efficiency, biodiversity and wildlife, it is equally about social and economic sustainability and the communities affected by the harvesting and processing of timber.

Unfortunately we have become overly reliant on imported hardwoods in the UK, to the detriment of our own domestic hardwood industry. This in turn has had a negative effect on our own native woodlands. Demand for British timber has been superseded by imported woods. As a result our domestic industry has contracted, with inevitable job losses and impacted communities. And with this contraction there has not been the investment made into making sure our woodlands are properly managed. Research has shown that up to 65% of our native mixed broadleaf woodlands are unmanaged

Yet, even as British timber has become dominated by imported wood, our own domestic timber is still superior in many respects.

Of most interest to self-build designers, British timber offers superior design flexibility. Imported woods are invariably generic in both grade and available sizes. Should a designer want a particularly texturally interesting wood, or a non-standard size, there is no way this request can be passed back along the chain to the source. Imported timber is very much ‘off the shelf’ in nature, yet with British timber the designer needs only to travel a few miles to a British sawmill to discuss specific requirements and can often view the actual timber before making a choice. Plus, the sawmill can cut bespoke sizes if necessary. Where imported woods are ‘off the shelf’, it’s worth thinking of British timber as more akin to Savile Row and ideally suited to a creative self-build market.

But moving back to the issue of sustainability, British timber offers obvious advantages with regards to the carbon footprint of its transportation. It might not be a huge reduction, but it is still significant.

It is also easier to monitor, inspect and report on the environmental and social effects of British timber when the woodland and sawmill are just 50 miles away. Imported woods might carry accreditation that it comes from properly managed sources, but how can we see for ourselves that that there are no negative impacts to ecology or communities if the source is on another continent?

Unfortunately, only 6% of hardwoods currently used in the UK are native. Yet there is no reason why designers should ignore the design and sustainability advantages of British woods. From a design perspective, as well as social, economic and environmental perspective, there are more good reasons to Buy British than there are not to.

The Grown In Britain movement is working hard to spread these messages and promote the UK timber industry to manufacturers, architects, designers and customers. The UK timber industry is working on the development of more modern and advanced products, such as thermally modified timber products that will enable greater use of lesser used hardwoods. Meanwhile the new Grown In Britain certification that designers are becoming more familiar with is an assurance that the wood you use comes from well-managed British woodlands.

By using British wood we are protecting, valuing and supporting our own woodlands. We are not only supporting our domestic industry and safeguarding jobs, we are also helping to grow an industry that has been dominated by imported timber for too long. So if self-build designers want to make sure they tick that sustainability box, they really have to buy British.

As seen in SelfBuilder & HomeMaker