US hardwood exports broke the US$3bn barrier last year.

So, while it would not dream of taking sole credit for this, the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is clearly good at helping the industry sell wood.

But underpinning the essential bottom line focus more recently, AHEC has also been increasingly dedicated to taking the US hardwoods environmental and technical performance story forward for those key market agenda setters; architects, designers, engineers, and the wider specifier community.

"Our recurring refrain to the timber sector is ‘adopt an architect’," said European director David Venables. "These are the people shaping our market. They’re also increasingly passionate about our messages on performance and environment and good at articulating them. And they’re timber innovators."

AHEC’s latest promotional showcase, forming part of design magazine Wallpaper’s ‘Handmade’ display at the Milan Design Week in April, illustrates its approach – plus its constant aim to give the US hardwoods story a new twist.

The American cherry wood, Swedishdesigned, British-made and engineered Rotunda Serotina, described as "part sculpture, part Pick’n Mix sweet store", was designed to be hands-on and interactive. It not only tells the latest US hardwood story, it allows the key specifier audience to participate in the plot, even tear out pages and keep them as souvenirs – of which more below. AHEC’s multi-layered marketing strategy, highlighting more than US hardwood’s availability, price and looks, has evolved in line with a wider technical and research programme.

In 2008 it backed the Sclera Pavilion, designed by architect David Adjaye for the London Design Festival (LDF). This took American tulipwood, conventionally an interior joinery grade, and used it, treated with hot oil, outside and structurally. Then there was the 12m-high engineered red oak wave, created by architect Amanda Levete engineered by Arup and built by Cowley Timberwork outside the V&A museum for the 2011 LDF.

The Endless Stair at the 2013 LDF arguably hit even greater heights. Designed by Dutch architects dRMM, it also featured tulipwood, but this time in cross laminated form.

"The aim of these projects is to get specifiers, and the timber trade, to take these species out of their conventional boxes – to say, if you think you knew US hardwoods, think again!" said Mr Venables. Using hardwood in engineered, or, he added, thermally modified form, another area of development for American hardwood, "widens specifiers’ structural and exterior-use timber portfolio".

"It gives them a huge new resource, and enables timber to pitch against steel and concrete even more effectively."

While still under wraps, several potential commercial threads have already emerged from these projects, including the possibility of a leading European engineered timber manufacturer introducing US hardwood options.

The other core element of AHEC’s work is life cycle assessment (LCA), measuring the carbon and wider environmental impacts of US hardwoods and products using them.

With carbon taxation and regulation already being discussed, Mr Venables is convinced carbon profile will become an increasingly critical materials specification criteria.

"And timber clearly has an inherent edge, but we need to be prepared with the data to back our low carbon claims."

To this end, AHEC first commissioned specialist consultancy thinkstep (formerly PE International) to put 19 hardwood species through LCA. It then applied the results in its projects, emphasising not only the carbon benefits of timber per se, but those inherent in processing and using it.

One initial application was the Out of the Woods initiative, where AHEC challenged Royal College of Art students to make US hardwood chairs, in collaboration with Benchmark Furniture. These not only had to perform and look good, but achieve minimum carbon footprint through LCA.

It was also used on the Endless Stair, but achieved perhaps its highest profile so far in last year’s Wish List – devised with Benchmark co-founders Sean Sutcliffe and Sir Terence Conran. It involved a stellar cast of architects and designers specifying an item in American hardwood, then teaming with a young designer/maker to produce it.

"Every aspect was life cycle assessed," said Mr Venables, "and the stools, made to architect Alison Brooks’ specification, came out zero carbon!"

The Rotunda Serotina, weaves all AHEC’s market development strands together. A 3.7mx3.7m circular structure of shelves, laden with ‘food trays’, it too features a hardwood not generally associated with structural use.

Using cherry also underlined another AHEC goal, to move buyers beyond current default options of oak, ash and walnut. "Broadening the species mix is not just healthier for the forest, but the industry and market too, as it widens customer choice," said Mr Venables.

Having commissioned Stockholm architect Kolman Boyes (KB) to design "a candy store concept" for this year’s display, Wallpaper asked AHEC to advise and help provide timber from AHEC member mills, via Morgan Timber and NHG Timber.

KB wanted the wood to be slender, to create a ‘skeletal’ structure, yet the shelves still had to carry 528 cherry ‘dishes’, which visitors could take away laden with gourmet Italian biscuits, accessing higher levels by cherry ladder.

"We wanted the impression of the structure disintegrating, like gas holders that slowly empty," said KB co-founder Victor Boye Julebäk.

Benchmark, commissioned to make the concept a reality, summed it up as ‘challenging’.

"Our goal was nothing but cherry and all dry jointed," said Sean Sutcliffe. "We didn’t quite make it on the glue, but did use less than a litre."

Added interest came from the specification of Japanese square peg jointing .

"We have extensive experience of using it," said Mr Sutcliffe. "But it’s still more complicated making square holes than round!"

The Benchmark team also had to cope with "a huge amount of very accurate repetition". The structure comprises 3,084 pieces and 1600 trays were made to replenish the ‘store’. But the joiners proved equal to the task, as did the cherry.

"It’s a lovely warm, pale pinkish red and mild to work with," said Mr Sutcliffe. "I’d love to use more, and I’m sure it will come back into fashion."

Mr Venables backed this prediction, pointing out that big name Italian furniture maker Riva has just restarted using it after a decade.

The other factor in construction was, of course, LCA. It lay behind the decision not only to use wood, but to minimise glue content, and use hundreds of small pieces to cut waste.

The outcome, by all accounts, is a stunning structure that was an exhibition hit, with visitors stripping it of all 1600 trays (each engraved with ‘American Cherry Wood’). Using 2.7 tonnes of timber its LCA calculation showed it to be ‘cradle to grave carbon neutral’ and, like AHEC’s other projects, it secured extensive media coverage.

Overall it reinforced AHEC’s belief that specifiers, and European specifiers especially, are a key audience it needs to cultivate to continue American timber’s worldwide momentum.

"The US hardwood industry is highly internationally oriented – not only hitting $3bn exports last year, but now exporting 60% of all grade lumber, compared to 10- 15% 20 years ago," said Mr Venables.

"We must ensure the market keeps evolving; encouraging use of more species in more applications and providing science-based evidence of environmental performance, which we have also now started doing through our new American Hardwood Environmental Profile, or AHEP, system) w And we must also maintain a European focus. China may be taking the volume, but Europe still sets global trends in design, construction and materials innovation." Mr Sutcliffe said the same applied to the timber industry generally.

"Perhaps we’re inspired by the growth rate of trees, or complacent because we assume everyone knows we’re the environmental good guys, but timber is still a slow moving industry," he said.