Coillte‘s eastern region headquarters at Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow are a homage to Irish timber. While the timber frame, timber clad building – Ireland’s first all-timber complex – may be something you would expect to find more in Scandinavia than in the Celtic countryside, it is a showcase for Irish timber.

The building is supported by glulam beams manufactured from sitka spruce grown in Wicklow, Ireland’s most heavily forested county. The cladding is Douglas fir, as are the architraves and doors, the flooring is oak, the staircase and reception desk are elm and the office furniture is MDF with an ash veneer. Lodgepole pine is used for the soffits and the wall sheathing and flooring are OSB from Louisiana-Pacific’s Waterford mill which is a joint venture with Coillte.

While the building is not typical of timber in construction in Ireland, its use is growing. In 2000, considered the peak of the ‘Celtic tiger’ economy, the sawn timber market reached 1.26 million m³ and, more importantly, 45% of this was supplied by native Irish timber. In the UK, the home-grown sector supplies around 22% of timber needs.

With 438,000ha, or 6% of land mass (the management of which recently received Forest Stewardship Council certification), Coillte is the country’s biggest landowner – and, supplying around 90% of the country’s native timber needs, it is also the largest timber supplier. In terms of volume, it is set to become even larger. A grant aid scheme introduced in the 1980s to encourage farmers to get involved in forestry is now paying dividends: in the 11 years to 2000, production increased from 1.5 million m³ a year to 2.7 million m³ and it is set to continue to rise for the next five years or so to around 3.25 million m³. Richard Lowe, who is involved in Coillte’s marketing, explains that there will be a big increase in supply from the private sector, although this will be largely thinnings for the pulp market. Coillte will continue to supply saw logs.

The organisation was established in 1989 when the Forest Service was split into two. Coillte was given the forest estate and a commercial mandate to manage it while the other half, which is still called the Forest Service, is responsible for forest legislation – felling licences, grants and plant health.

With the new mandate came a huge shift in culture. ‘We had to change from a civil service structure to a commercial structure,’ says Mr Lowe.

However, the transition has been made successfully: the large staff of 2,652 that Coillte inherited has been trimmed to just over 1,000 and profits have risen from I£400,000 in 1990 to I£20.1m in 2000, which alone was a 20% increase on 1999.

Initially the relationship between Coillte and the industry was strained but in recent years it has become more symbiotic. In recognition of the increased quantities of raw material coming on stream, Ireland’s sawmills have invested heavily over the past three years – I£68.5m since 1999 to be precise (TTJ July 7).

‘It shows great confidence in supply and markets,’ says Mr Lowe. ‘They’re going to be very big companies on a European scale.’

Electronic auctions

Another significant change in recent years was the introduction of the electronic auction system in 1997. Again, this created some tension between Coillte and its customers, largely because the industry was concerned about the secrecy surrounding the reserve price. Parts of the system are being reviewed, in consultation with the Irish Timber Council, but John Curran, the manager responsible for electronic log sales, maintains that it has had a positive influence. Around 95% of Coillte’s production is sold by electronic auction while the rest is held back for local sales.

‘It has made a tremendous impact in terms of stability in the market,’ says Mr Curran. ‘Since 1997-98 we have had stability in terms of roundwood prices and that’s reflected in a dramatic increase in sales of sawn timber in the Irish market.’

That stability, Mr Curran believes, is reflected in the large investments that mills have made recently.

The electronic system has also improved information flow in terms of supply and product specifications and Coillte has included packaging of timber lots and commodity sales, says Mr Curran.

Coillte thins its forests in order to produce better quality saw logs and last year sales of 14cm-plus logs hit record sales of 1.67 million m³. Many of the mills are looking for larger logs of around 20cm and Coillte is working with them closely to find the best end uses.

‘The pallet market is very tight, especially in the UK,’ says Mr Lowe, ‘so if we can reduce pallet production and produce large sawlogs for construction then we will be better off as an industry.’

And it is in building that Irish timber is making inroads: last year construction grade sales alone rose by 21%. Timber frame accounts for about 15% of new build and the figure is rising.

‘Despite a significant slowdown in house starts, the market is growing and there is a general air of confidence,’ says Mr Lowe, although this year began with a little less certainty and imported material has become more competitive.

‘It’s not as good as last year, but it’s still a good market,’ he says. ‘Our targets for this year include looking to increase the share of the domestic market even if it contracts a little.’

However, Ireland’s timber industry faces the same frustrations with architects and specifiers as does its UK counterpart. Ireland’s ‘wood culture’ has grown over the past five years – with Coillte even sponsoring a DIY television programme – but there is still room for development.

‘Traditionally houses have been concrete and steel – architects don’t get training in timber,’ says Mr Lowe. ‘There are misconceptions about timber that stem from the industry’s infancy. We need to change perceptions – specifiers still specify imported timber when domestic will do. An education process is needed.’

To this end, various Irish industry bodies, including Coillte, have produced a specifier’s guide called Woodspec.

Coillte’s core business is selling logs but it does have other sources of income. In an effort to increase afforestation, its farm forestry partnership scheme encourages farmers and other landowners to set land aside for forests. Coillte plants and manages the forests and then markets the timber.

‘We have the expertise, where an individual farmer might find it difficult,’ says Mr Lowe. By the end of last year there were 381 partnerships in place.

Sorces of income

In addition, Coillte has interests outside the timber industry in areas such as Christmas trees, chalets, engineering, mobile phone masts, nurseries, overseas consultancy and property development.

‘Although we are trying to increase income from our core area, we are also trying to diversify and generate cash from other areas,’ says Mr Lowe.

And just as it is looking to diversify its interests, Coillte is also looking to diversify its timber source. Sitka spruce is the predominant species as it is well-suited to the poor quality land where forests have raditionally been located.

‘It’s an excellent timber for growth rates, quality of fibre and for its strength characteristics,’ says Mr Lowe.

However, as better land is given over to forestry, a wider range of species, including Douglas fir, larch and broadleaves, can be grown. It is making a concerted effort to plant more broadleaves but Mr Lowe emphasises this must be done in a managed way. ‘You need enough of them to manage them, so you can treat them like a crop,’ he says.’

Coillte has its own processing facility at Dundrum in Co Tipperary where it produces native hardwood for furniture and flooring, and it is working with the industry to find markets for what are, at present, minor species.

Perhaps in a few years, Coillte’s showcase building in Newtownmountkennedy will be the norm.