“The timber industry is surfing the waves of the best market in years,” delegates at this year’s Institute of Wood Science conference were told. The statement, by British Woodworking Federation director Richard Lambert, was one of a number of optimistic noises made at the event, which IWSc president Jim Coulson said felt like a timber revivalist meeting.

The conference, held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Birmingham on September 30, focused on the theme of “Wood Procurement and Performance” and attracted about 120 people. More than half were drawn from outside the institute’s membership, including architects and representatives from government departments and local authorities.

Mr Lambert told delegates the industry had been boosted by television programmes. BBC‘s Ground Force had helped timber decking sales, while Changing Rooms and Grand Designs had boosted wood floors and timber frame respectively.

“Timber offers the genuine answer to many of the questions posed by the sustainable buildings agenda,” he said, but added that while the environmental argument offers potential for the sector, it also presented problems.

Mr Lambert said private housebuilders were still very much driven by cost and customers, but the government was increasingly driving the agenda, having done much work on sustainability and procurement since Greenpeace‘s invasion of the Cabinet Office in 2002. To emphasise this, he revealed that an estimated 40% of buildings constructed over the next five years were expected to be publicly-funded projects.

Certification confusion

However, one problem is the proliferation of certification schemes.

Mr Lambert said: “This causes a great deal of confusion for the joinery manufacturer who wants to buy legal and sustainable timber but sees so many different schemes it’s difficult to understand what he’s buying.”

He said the schemes’ refusal to work towards mutual recognition was a problem. Also, clients were told to use FSC timber, but then found there was a lack of supply.

He then asked a pertinent question: “How far is the timber sector prepared to take advantage of the opportunities being presented it?”

Mr Lambert said rival materials, such as plastic and brick, were better funded and organised, and were now fighting back against the wood. for good campaign.

Dr Peter Bonfield, managing director of the BRE‘s construction division, said the traditional markets for timber had been eroded over the past 25 years but there was great opportunity to reverse the decline.

He added that “significant change” was occurring, pointing to deputy prime minister John Prescott’s big influence in off-site homes manufacture and building regulations becoming more demanding for builders.

At the BRE‘s off-site conference last year Mr Prescott urged timber frame companies to help the government achieve its housing delivery targets.

But Dr Bonfield detected that the timber industry was “passive” compared with other material suppliers despite having an “inherent advantage”.

He also said the supply dearth of certified timber was a “missed opportunity”, emphasising the difficulty of buying certified wood on a national basis.

This point was also taken up by Dr Mike Packer, Timbmet‘s group environmental manager, who gave a breakdown on supply chain experience of public timber procurement.

He said there was a “massive problem” with supplying certified timber but there were plenty of certified forests to deliver the government’s targets.

Dr Packer said implementation of central government public procurement policy was still “weak”, while local authorities, which were not subject to the government’s policy, had their work cut out to introduce their own policies. Kent County Council and Dundee Council were two which were tightening their processes.

Examples of supply chain failures included the use of uncertified African timber decking for the Cardiff Millennium Stadium project, plus the the use of uncertified Liberian rainforest wood, considered to be “conflict timber” in lock gates on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

More recently, Greenpeace occupied the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow (TTJ September 18/25) because it claimed Junckers had no documentation regarding the source of merbau flooring used in the refurbishment.

Dr Packer said clearer guidance was desperately needed, while generalised guidelines based on central government advice were needed for local authorities. He also called for education on specification, control measures, monitoring and reporting.

Bob Andrew, procurement adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said the government’s policy was still developing.

The Central Point of Expertise on Timber Procurement’s assessment of five certification schemes would be published this month. This would not “judge” schemes but examined whether they met contract requirements for legal and/or sustainable timber. A six-month pilot helpline would then follow for selected government departments.

Mr Andrew said legal timber was the minimum requirement but sustainable wood was the preferred choice, with independent verification of evidence.

He said there was a significant increase in the amount of certified timber purchased by the government last year. “We are improving but we have some way to go.”

Mr Andrew said “sustainability” was a difficult definition to tie up in a contract. However, if departments decided that sustainable timber did not give value for money they would accept the lower standard for legal timber.

But he said certification was key to assurance – a point which drew varying opinions among delegates during question time.

Furniture designer Luke Hughes questioned why the timber sector was always on the defensive, when most of the European forests “have been around for more than a thousand years” and were well managed.

“That has to be more important than the bureaucracy we are dealing with at the moment,” he added.

Duncan King, of the American Hardwood Export Council, maintained that forests were increasing in size, not decreasing.

He said: “I think we are all getting hung up on certification. That’s not the main issue, it’s sustainability.”

In response, Mr Andrew said government departments would give the nod to uncertified timber where there was compelling evidence that forest sources were well managed and the risk was low.

But Dr Bonfield warned that it was “not enough” to just say timber was sustainable – there was an increasing need to demonstrate it as objectively as possible.

Another delegate, a forester, thought the industry was “contemplating its navel” and reminded that the real competitors were steel and concrete. “We know timber can be sustainable, but concrete can never be sustainable,” he said.

Taking up this point, Mr Lambert said other material suppliers were starting to use the sustainable argument. He said they conceded the environmental issue to timber but instead raised social and economic points in claiming sustainability.

Rupert Oliver, of Forest Industries Intelligence, described the forest certification movement as a “remarkable achievement”, with nearly 200 million ha certified worldwide in the past 10 years, albeit very little in developing countries where deforestation was the greatest problem.

But Mr Oliver admitted the whole issue had become increasingly convoluted due to the diversity of forest types, complexities of forest management and the wide demands placed on forest resources.

This, he added, challenged the industry to ensure complexities did not lead to market confusion and undermine the value of forest certification.

Case studies

The conference also included some interesting architectural case studies on buildings featuring timber.

One was Inn the Park in St James’s Park, designed by London-based Hopkins Architects to fit into the park’s ecology.

The building features the extensive use of Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC) certified Austrian larch in glulam columns and cladding.

Project architect Gary Clark explained that oak was vetoed for cost reasons and that contractor Swift, which has a working relationship with Lutterworth-based Whitmore’s Timber, suggested using the slow-growing and dimensionally stable larch instead.

A further case study came from Ben Tuxworth, strategy director of Forum for the Future, who gave a diary account of his self-build project near Cheltenham.

The construction, which was stick-build using Masonite beams due to access difficulties, featured on the Discovery Channel’s Home and Leisure programme.

Mr Tuxworth said timber’s advantages to the self-builder included cost, performance, weather tolerance, environmental performance, ease of use, aesthetics and feel.

However, he found products difficult to source, with one-off builds usually too small for many providers. He also found sustainability issues muddied the waters, with builders merchants baffled by both sustainability and engineered timber.

He concluded: “If timber is the future for self-build, then it’s got to get easier to source.” The conference marked the launch of the IWSc’s new Certificate Course, based on distance learning with topic modules, tutorial support and continuous assessment.