Given his background, it’s perhaps not surprising that sustainability consultant Charlie Law became a champion for timber.

His father was a carpenter who did a lot of work in the film industry, and his maternal great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were both bench joiners.

In fact Charlie, whose consultancy Sustainable Construction Solutions has worked with the Timber Trade Federation, CTI and Grown in Britain, did set out on the same path, applying for a job as an apprentice joiner with Andrew Murray Joinery. When the company saw his ‘O’ levels, however, they suggested he might like to be a quantity surveyor.

“I didn’t have a clue what a QS was but I took the job and one of my mates got the apprentice joinery job,” he said.

Working with wood remained a hobby for Charlie as his career took him through various roles in the construction industry, as a QS with Andrew Murray’s main contractor parent company, Kyle Stewart, and then as a site manager.

When the business became one of several under the umbrella of HBG, Charlie proposed an “in-house labour agency”, focusing largely on training, logistics and labour efficiency. He was also given the task of completing the company’s fledgling ISO 14001 environmental management procedure.

Within two months of starting the job, an encounter with Greenpeace fired his passion for sustainable timber. HBG was carrying out refurbishment work on Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, including installing new merbau flooring. Claiming the timber was not from sustainable sources, Greenpeace scaled the building, unfurling a banner reading: “National Lottery: Funding Rainforest Destruction”.

It turned out the merbau was legal, MTCC timber, but no-one had asked the question. Charlie quickly drew up a timber procurement policy for HBG and over the years the company, which eventually became BAM, earned a good reputation for its timber procurement.

“We didn’t just pay lip service. We were always pushing for robust information on timber deliveries. Any timber that came on site had to be FSC or PEFC certified,” said Charlie. “By the time I left my job as head of environmental management in 2014 to set up my own business, we knew the source of 99% of timber coming onto site.”

In 2009 Charlie joined the TRADA board, making BAM the first contractor to be represented. He spent some time on the advisory committee but rejoined the board last year.

Charlie may have long been passionate about timber and its sustainability, but it was when he was asked to join the fledgling Grown in Britain contractors group in 2012 that he truly realised the potential for the home-grown industry.

“Britain supplies less than 50% of our softwood needs and in the construction market it’s probably only 20%. We need to be growing more softwood timber and we need to look at the timber we are growing and how we can use it better in construction. We need to be sustainable as a nation, not just in the construction industry,” he said.

Charlie identifies the natural progression of this as the development of more finished products, elevating timber from commodity to building component.

“We need to be selling timber as a finished product to go into a building without cutting. The JJI-Joist is a good example of an engineered product manufactured to length that goes straight up, without any waste. It’s that sort of thing I want to promote,” said Charlie.

The next step would be prefabricated buildings. Prefabrication not only reduces waste – another area of interest for Charlie – it improves build time, provides better quality control and helps to address the construction skills shortage.

“In a factory labour can be trained and retained whereas on a building site workers move from one site to another,” he said. For Charlie, prefabrication and British timber naturally come together in cross-laminated timber (CLT). Edinburgh Napier University has done a lot of work on the product and Charlie believes “we should be pumping money into developing it”.

CLT, or any prefabricated timber system, could be demountable and so is ideal to meet the changing needs of homeowners over a lifetime or for temporary buildings to ease the housing shortage. A CLT structure with large spans could have non load-bearing partitions that could be reconfigured as needs change. Timber elements, whether that’s partitions or glulam beams, could also be reused in other buildings.

“We’re still nailing members together or using long screws but we need to think about locking systems for joints so the timber can be unlocked and moved. We can do it with steelwork so we should be able to do it with timber,” said Charlie.

This illustrates how timber is the “ultimate circular economy material” and Charlie urges more thorough use of timber products before they’re consigned to a biomass boiler.

The Sustainability Report he produced for the CTI last year revealed that, contrary to common belief, less than 1% of timber waste goes to landfill but Charlie argues that timber products could remain in use for longer.

“We’re too quick to say we’ll chip it and recycle it for panel products and then we’ll burn it. We need to look at some of the smaller loops first,” he said.

An example is the pallet market where a lot of softwood is used to produce single-use pallets.

“Yes, waste pallets go into the biomass market but we should get as much use as possible out of them before they go into the waste stream. We should be looking at a more robust pallet construction to make them last longer, which would make more timber available for other products, such as CLT,” said Charlie.

It is also not easy to get pallets collected from construction sites so they often end up in the timber skip.

Charlie advocates pallet collection from building sites being tied in with systems such as CHEP, or operated by waste companies which could collect pallets for reuse when they remove waste from sites.

The timber industry’s role in Charlie’s vision is to build on the innovation that already exists. “We have timber companies producing prefabricated housing components so the knowledge and innovation are there, we just have to continue with it,” he said.

And to help the building industry adopt new building systems, the products must be backed up with technical information.

“The construction industry is very conservative and risk averse – and rightly so because if something goes wrong it can be a big issue to put it right,” said Charlie.

“We can’t just rely on saying timber’s a great material because it’s renewable and sustainable. Sustainability is a given now and when compared like-for-like with steel and concrete, structural timber products can at first appear to be more expensive so it’s very much about demonstrating that timber can save on programme time and labour elsewhere in the project, such as reduced foundation size or faster first fix installation, which will reduce overall cost – that’s what contractors are interested in.”

A lot of it starts with design and this is why the timber industry must focus its efforts on architects and specifiers. TRADA does a lot of this work and through its university engagement programme it provides design information, usually available only to members, free to lecturers and students but it needs the timber industry’s support.

“TRADA is a membership organisation and this work can only be done if members fund it,” said Charlie.

In addition to his role on the TRADA board and his work with the CTI, Charlie also led the TTF’s Panel Products Review last year and delivered Grown in Britain’s WoodStock project investigating opportunities for British hardwoods.

The report found that, contrary to some perceptions, there is strong demand for the hardwood species that are grown in the UK but we are currently importing these from elsewhere.

“The sawmills are under-utilised but with very little investment there’s capacity to grow the UK hardwood market by 20% over four or five years, and probably double it over 10 years,” said Charlie.

UK ash could potentially supply 50% of ash demand and it’s a similar story for beech. UK supplies of sycamore could easily meet the volumes of US maple imported each year. The annual volume of UK-grown sweet chestnut could increase from 1,000m3 to 49,000m3 if this species was more widely specified.

At present British hardwoods are often regarded as firewood or timber for specialist joinery and because they’re undervalued, woodlands are often undermanaged. It could, however, be different.

Part of the problem, the report found, is the inefficient supply chain. Unlike in the US and France where hardwood producers consolidate to sell their products, in the UK each sawmill works on its own.

“The construction industry and its suppliers are looking for large volumes of timber on short lead times but the British industry isn’t set up for that,” said Charlie.

The solution is WoodStock, an online platform to market hardwoods collectively. “We think it’s workable but we need the funding to establish the platform,” he said. And again, a bit of innovation would make it easier to specify British hardwoods.

“We looked at how to make it more efficient to produce a mass-produced product. Because it’s a local product we could saw it to produce blanks of standardised materials, such as 100x18mm skirting,” said Charlie.

While making progress in the conservative construction industry can be slow, Charlie is heartened that the pace of change is quickening and he feels positive about timber’s potential.

“I’ve been in the construction industry for 30 years and I’ve seen developments in the last five to 10 years, such as CLT, that I thought would never happen.

“Ten years ago if you said you wanted to build a timber building you’d get some funny looks but now people have embraced them.

They recognise the low carbon and health benefits. Organisations such as TRADA, the TTF and BWF are coming together to promote timber.” He’s also optimistic that the timber building systems and standardised hardwood products he knows are possible, will happen.

“We’re a resourceful nation. We have the technology to be able to do this and do it well.