“The timber industry’s stars are in alignment,” were David Bills opening words at the wood. for good and BRE-backed “Big Challenge Conference” last week. He was referring to what he saw as unprecedented opportunities for timber products and building systems in UK construction. And just to emphasise the point Mr Bills, interim chief executive of the new Confederation of Forest Industries and conference chairman, also told the 123-strong audience at the BRE‘s Watford headquarters, that the timber sector’s “ducks were in a row”.

His view was echoed by other speakers at the event, which was devised to highlight how the timber trade generally can capitalise on the UK’s urgent need for more and more sustainable housing.

Bryan Woodley, chief executive of the UK Timber Frame Association, described the openings for timber today as “unique”. “And if we sell the benefits of our products hard, that can be turned into cubic metres of timber moved,” he said.

Dr Peter Bonfield, managing director of the BRE’s Construction Division, was just as unequivocal, saying that the current conjunction of market developments could help reverse a 20-year-long erosion of timber’s building products market share.

Probably the key factor making the ground so fertile for timber is the government’s commitment to tackle climate change. Brought to bear on the UK’s spiralling housing demand – and it projects that an extra 200,000 dwellings will be needed in the “strategic growth areas” of southern England alone – this has translated into the £38bn “Sustainable Communities Plan”. The aim of this is primarily to drive up housing’s environmental performance, but also to encourage use of “modern methods of construction” (MMC) – offsite and other innovative techniques that improve a property’s whole-life eco credentials, de-skill and speed up construction and raise quality.

Man on a mission

“The man driving this programme forward is deputy prime minister John Prescott,” said Dr Bonfield. “He’s a man on a mission. He wants more homes and he wants them quickly and with fewer defects. He also wants 25% to be built using MMC.”

He added that other development bodies, the Housing Corporation, English Partnerships and local authorities, are also picking up the Prescott baton with enthusiasm, attaching increasingly rigorous sustainability criteria to construction funding, land release and planning consent.

Andy McCosh of construction consultancy Calfordseaden said that “with the trend to more advanced and substantially factory-based building solutions, timber has a great deal to offer.” But success in today’s market wasn’t just about the right building product or system. “The way to make MMC work is effective partnering between all parties in the construction chain,” he said.

Mr Woodley also maintained that timber frame was well-placed to satisfy the stricter environmental stipulations of “upgraded” building regulations and would be capable of meeting “even the more aspirational” demands of the Code for Sustainable Buildings being developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

All of which begs the question why the conference was not called the Big Opportunity rather than the Big Challenge. But this was made clear by the speakers who stressed that the UK’s drive to sustainable construction is not an open door for the timber industry. One hurdle it still has to overcome is continuing confusion and disagreement over the different environmental certification schemes. Timbmet‘s environmental director Mike Packer triggered debate by revealing that his company had used consultants to assess the various schemes, concluding that only the FSC‘s was a true guarantee of sustainability. Others could only be regarded as proof of “semi-sustainability” or “legality”.

He also said the UK needed a single certification chain of custody scheme.

Katie Livesey of the BRE said that the certification debate would come into sharper focus this autumn when the new Central Point of Expertise on Timber, set up by DEFRA, issues its assessment of the top five schemes used in the UK; FSC, PEFC, SFI, CSA and MTCC. She added that the BRE would also incorporate this assessment into its Ecohomes literature.

John Fletcher of wood. for good also pointed out that rival construction materials suppliers were not about to let timber grab all the sustainability brownie points. The concrete sector’s multi-million pound advertising campaign “Concrete thinking” focuses on the material’s environmental performance, while the steel industry stresses its product’s durability as proof of sustainability. Meanwhile the uPVC sector still plays on misconceptions about timber, notably the common association of all timber products with rainforest destruction.

Exploiting the opportunities

The conclusion of the conference was that the timber industry had the products and messages to overcome the challenges. It just needs to exploit them. Dr Bonfield said one opportunity to do this would be the BRE’s Offsite 2005 exhibition where the organisers want to make the centrepiece a complete offsite-produced house and are now looking for companies to provide it.

Managing director Charles Trevor also urged the industry to take maximum advantage of wood. for good’s promotional campaigns. “Attitudes to wood are changing, and significant opportunities are opening up,” he said, “but we’ve got to sustain that change and counter propaganda from rival materials.”