Wood for Good’s goal to inform architects and specifiers about the advantages of timber progressed further recently when the organisation hosted a fact-finding trip for trade journalists.

The group, from Refurb & Regeneration, Housing Association, Builder & Engineer, Housing Association Building & Maintenance – and TTJ – were given a detailed insight during the two-day trip to Scotland and Carlisle.

The visit started with a Forestry Commission Scotland harvesting site, and tracked the timber through to processing at Howie Forest Products, then on to James Jones & Sons’ Lockerbie mill and BSW at Carlisle, where the group learnt about the companies’ latest developments in engineered products.

It follows a similar trip to Scotland last year and to Sweden – again visiting wood for good members.

Wood for good managing director Charles Trevor said the aim of the press trip was for the industry to build relationships with journalists and to explain that the industry was “not destructive”.

The result of the previous trips was that the journalists left with a better understanding of the scale and ethics of the industry, he said.

And this occasion was no exception.

Juliet Woodcock, editor of Refurb & Regeneration, came away with a much more positive view of the timber industry, especially in terms of the environment. “I was aware of chain of custody but didn’t have any understanding of what was happening in the forest,” she said.

She was particularly impressed with the long-term approach of the industry and Forestry Commission Scotland, and the care taken to address biodiversity and amenity use.

This became apparent at the first stop on the trip – a harvesting site at Castle Maddy in Forestry Commission Scotland’s Galloway district. Here a coup of 45ha was being harvested – some of it going to Howie, which buys 130,000m3 a year from the FC.

Rectifying mistakes

Forester Bill Fisher explained the planting and harvesting cycle, including the measures taken to protect water courses, ensure a mixed aged forest and develop biodiversity – and the work being done to rectify the mistakes of the past.

“In the 1950s, the Forestry Commission planted trees everywhere – largely Sitka spruce. Now we are trying to increase biodiversity,” he said. “In areas where we can plant Scots pine to encourage red squirrels we will do that and accept we won’t get any timber production.”

From the forest, the group visited Howie’s mill in Dalbeattie. Here, as joint managing director Hamish Macleod and sales director Keith Ainslie explained, the milling process from the log yard to the sawn, planed and treated timber, packaged ready for the customer, the journalists had their introduction to the sophistication of the timber industry.

This reality was emphasised further when the two men revealed the details of the new £13m mill due to come on stream soon. Moving at 150m/min, from log to finished sawn product will be completed in just 58 seconds. “It will be the most modern and efficient mill in the country,” said Mr Macleod, adding that it was on the scale of the Scandinavian “super mills”.

He also explained Howie’s commitment to using 100% FSC-certified timber and how it had recently signed up to The Timber Trade Federation’s Responsible Purchasing Policy. ‘It’s a family business and being in for the long-term does make a difference,” he said.

The next stop was James Jones & Sons’ Lockerbie mill where the journalists found another story of investment in modern production.

Senior manager Eddie Balfour told the group that the company had invested £7.3m in the past nine months – and another £18m is earmarked for a new 100,000m3 capacity carcassing mill.

He also explained how planing and treatment added value to timber and strengthened the position of home-grown timber.

“It’s all about getting the service level and range of products that’s needed, and doing that consistently,” said Mr Balfour.

Director Tom Bruce-Jones took this a step further by outlining the company’s engineered timber products – the JJI-joist and the recently launched Intelliroof.

Industry overview

At BSW’s Carlisle mill, the last stop on the trip, chief executive Paul Barham treated the journalists to a comprehensive view of the timber industry, explaining the impact of factors outside companies’ control – exchange rates, energy costs, infrastructure, global supply and demand – and how the industry mitigated these through optimising use of the raw material, and improving cost efficiencies and operational capabilities.

“We need to make it a more resilient business in terms of profitability,” said Mr Barham. “We do this through cutting costs that don’t add value and producing what the market wants.”

He also commented on the potential growth in the UK market, now that timber was being recognised as “the only truly renewable building material”.

He outlined the company’s recent investments – a new planer and grading equipment in BSW’s Latvia business, upgrades at its UK mills, and the £26m spend – the largest BSW has ever undertaken – in a new mill at Fort William.

The journalists were also told about BSW’s new ventures – BSW Alouette, the joint venture with Canadian Super E home manufacturer Alouette International Housing, and Accoya – which build on the core business of sawn timber.

John Alexander, BSW’s head of business development, described Accoya – an acetylation process which increases timber’s durability – as “like finding a new tree in the forest”.

“It allows timber to be used in applications where it would never have been used before,” he said.

Ideal for joinery, the process should be of particular interest to the readers of the various magazines represented on the trip.

“The message from architects is that they want to specify timber windows but they get knocked back by their clients who are concerned about maintenance,” said Mr Alexander.

The product is so resistant to rot that BSW is willing to guarantee it for 50 years, as long as best practice techniques are followed.

“It will hopefully take some market share from plastic,” he said.

Positive stories

Since the journalists returned to their desk, their shorthand notebooks bulging with timber industry facts and figures, each of them has published positive stories on the UK timber industry.

For Richard Stirling, editor of Builder & Engineer, the trip gave him a “wonderful insight” into the industry from the forest to the lumber yard.

“I learnt a lot,” he said. “It gave me a practical insight into the process and there was lots of detail.”

One of the biggest impressions for him was that the sawmills were more environmentally aware than he had presumed.

Mr Stirling said his newfound knowledge would help him talk to people about timber, and he would apply it when writing about modern methods of construction.

Bruce Meecham, editor of Housing Association and MMC, said the trip was “definitely valuable” and since returning to his office he has written on a variety of issues, including sustainability and technology.

“I got more out of the trip than I expected,” he said.

He was surprised at the level of the investment being made by all three companies, and found the sawmilling process more sophisticated than he expected. He was particularly impressed by how the mills “use every bit of waste” and by their close working relationship with the Forestry Commission.

And Juliet Woodcock wrote an article following the itinerary from forest through to sawmill and tracing her changing opinion of the whole process.

She said the new knowledge would help her to approach interviews and writing differently.

“It will change how I write because, while I knew about the FSC and chain of custody, now I can ask companies about their policies on timber,” she said.