Wood - but not as we know it

26 February 2018

Species, specification and application – all need to be rethought to ensure timber fulfill its promise as the material of the future, writes Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology

It’s 15 years since the launch of the Centre for Timber Engineering at Edinburgh Napier University – covered by TTJ’s January 2003 issue.

Our longest-running project, “Strategic Integrated Research in Timber”, is almost as old and still working hard, in close partnership with industry, to grow the use of timber through applied research, knowledge transfer, and standardisation work.

So this might be a good excuse to look back, but instead I want to look forward. We’ve been calling wood “the material of the future”, but what is that future and how do we prepare for it?

There are well-known environmental, economic and societal motivations for adopting a more sustainable, circular, bio-based economy. Wood, being renewable, is high on the list for replacing scarcer, less environmentally-friendly raw materials, but renewable doesn’t mean limitless. We already see competing demands for wood fibre and it will increasingly be divided among an even wider range of applications.

So we need increasingly to consider more efficient use and cascade reuse of wood from an ever-wider range of species and forest types. Forest resilience against climate change, pests and diseases, and changing public views on forests all point towards a major shift in the type of wood we use, and how we use it.

We need to get much better at matching wood qualities to application, blending recovered wood with new, and being less reliant on a small number of commercial species. We think of the timber industries as low waste, with all pre-consumer wood fibre going to some use, but that picture is incomplete. We often send wood prematurely to lower value, end-of-cycle use when it could be used in a higher value, more long-lasting forms first.

Wood is also left in forests because of under management or species being ‘wrong’.

There’s also a less obvious tendency to over-specify and demand higher quality wood where lower quality would do. Cross-laminated timber construction is an example. This is an ideal way of using wood with lower, or less certain properties, yet we’re drifting towards specification of higher grades and more uniformity. The volumes of wood going into CLT should give us cause to think about timber reclaim and reuse, as both solution and potential problem.

In the future, wood will be different. Even familiar species will change as a result of climate change, changing forest management, and tree breeding accelerated by genomics. We must begin now to open our minds – not just to using more wood, but more sources of wood.

The solutions are not just technological and scientific. What we most need to do is grow knowledge and expertise. It is confidence in using wood that most enables its better use.

When the Centre for Timber Engineering was created 15 years ago, it was a joint action of industry and academia. Much has changed since then, but some things still hold true. The future of wood is still good, but we need to prepare for it and that demands partnership.

There’s a role for everyone.

The future is what we make for ourselves. Let’s make it with wood