Recently four individuals with very different interests in timber met to discuss some key industry issues. They were Neil Donaldson, chief executive of James Donaldson & Sons and president of The Timber Trade Federation; David Sulman, secretary of the Scottish Timber Trade Association (STTA); Peter Wilson, director of business development at the Centre for Timber Engineering (CTE) and one of timber’s most persuasive and vocal advocates: and Scott McAndrew, of Cullen Building Products, the STTA-prize winning Masters student at the CTE and author of a dissertation on compression of timber perpendicular to grain.

Q. What are the key challenges facing the timber industry?

ND: It’s great to see a resurging interest in the use of wood and wood products in the UK, but timber importers and merchants are concerned about supply issues. There has been an unexpected reduction in supplies from some overseas countries which have traditionally supplied our markets.

DS: This renewed interest is an opportunity for timber to recover its rightful place in the market. Wood is undoubtedly undervalued – it is truly a versatile material.

PW: One of our main challenges is that we see timber in isolation and we don’t sell its advantages hard enough. Look at all the research done on timber’s better acoustic and thermal properties, for example – we hardly promote that at all.

SMcA: The knowledge base on timber is really low among students. We need to help them build with timber with more confidence, rather than just helping them assemble components. Even in colleges of building, the lack of information is amazing. We’re taught first about brick and block, concrete, steel, then timber, so timber is not likely to be the first choice as a construction medium.

DS: I agree with Peter – there is a demonstrable need for more guidance on timber detailing which is so crucial to the satisfactory long-term performance of timber products. This is something that those responsible for timber promotion should revisit.

PW: Wood for Good, the generic timber promotion initiative, has opened the door and now we need to do a much better ‘hand holding’ job and provide more depth of information. If we don’t improve the quality of information at all levels, then other industries will work hard to ensure timber is the product to forget.

Q How is your sector facing up to these challenges?

DS: There is recognition of the importance of promotion, but promotion of timber is under-funded. We need to educate and inform specifiers and users of wood about the positive and predictable qualities of wood.

PW: And we need to work on getting the Scottish Building Standards Agency to recognise those qualities and reflect them in standards. I’m concerned that engineers don’t use timber unless architects specify it. That’s a challenge we need to meet. We need to demonstrate the qualities of timber. Built demonstration projects are a key way forward.

DS: Demonstration projects have a vital role to play; there is no better way to understand the capabilities of wood than to see them for yourself.

ND: One terrific thing the industry has done for timber is to help fund the Centre for Timber Engineering at Napier University. This was an inspirational move, providing information for a new generation of designers. The London Olympics in 2012 also presents a serious opportunity, which the Timber Trade Federation and other timber industry organisations are grasping. There are 9,000 housing units to be built and timber ought to be a major focus. The industry is very close to putting the meat on the bones of a proposal for timber as the main material for these units. If you’re looking for fantastic demonstrations of buildings constructed in timber, take a look at Oslo airport.

SMcA: My sector is timber connectors. As far as I’m concerned we’re meeting the challenge of improving the quality of connectors. One of the worries, however, is that when you make something simpler – like assembling components on site – people don’t always back it with training. It’s important that the products are as foolproof as possible and that we train people to use them optimally.

Q. What are key ways to take the industry forward?

ND: New product development has the capacity to recharge this fragmented industry with its hierarchy of players and has meaning for everyone up and down the chain. We’ve seen this as the growth sector of our industry, the timber frames, roof trusses, chipboard, OSB. The new roof product we’ve developed – SIRS, incorporating SIPS, cassette floors and roof trusses – is typical. In our pilot projects it saved up to at least 33% of erection time.

PW: Accurate and speedy construction using fewer people is a key challenge – and it’s amazing that the technology for this can be delivered using wood.

SMcA: That is what we need to be teaching at colleges and universities.

DS: As a country we take wood for granted – it’s been around forever and its image can sometimes be too low-tech. We need to change this perception – at all levels.

ND: Generic promotion of timber – the old cry – but it’s needed now more than ever.

DS: Yes, the educational challenge for timber is huge. It needs serious resources to make an even better impact. Given the scale of the task, the first question is, ‘where do we begin?’

PW: We begin by targeting. We need to look at key sectors where timber’s qualities will be visible and quickly recognised – like tourism. I suppose we’ve come full circle to the need for demonstration projects.

Q. Scott, why did you select the compression of timber perpendicular to grain as your Timber Engineering Masters dissertation topic?

SMcA: Eurocode 5 covering timber and timber engineering is coming into play in 2010 –and it’s complicated to show compliance. Timber frame is growing in popularity and it’s important for the timber industry supply chain to make the construction of timber frames as easy as possible.

DS: This is absolutely right. The development of codes and standards sometimes seems to make timber more complicated to use in this country.

SMcA: The compression of timber perpendicular to grain is most obvious at the intersections of roof and floor units with the top and bottom rails in a timber frame structure. Where the loads being transferred are great, the tendency is to add more timber. Sustainability and cost factors inform against this approach. The emphasis is on using less, not more, timber. I hope to carry out a study on the compression and create a simpler method for calculation of the compression of timber perpendicular to grain. My long-term goal would be for this method to be included in Eurocode 5 or in a UK annexe to the Code.

DS: If Scott is successful this will have wide implications for timber design. If there can be a simplified method of calculation and even a common approach throughout Europe, it spells a huge change for timber designers. This study has the potential to make a real difference for structural timber design.

SMcA: I’m very excited by the potential of this study, so too are the established timber engineers I’ve consulted when putting this proposal together. We all feel that establishing such a methodology, under rigorous research conditions at the CTE, will encourage the greater use of timber in structural and engineered applications throughout Europe. Architects and engineers will be able to specify timber with even greater confidence.

Q. If you had one piece of advice to give our prime minister about timber, what would it be?

PW: Get all government departments to sing from the same hymn sheet – there is too much contradiction and consequently confusion.

ND: Listen to the industry re-write the story of the three little pigs (where the wolf blows down the house of straw and sticks and eats the pigs within, but cannot blow down the house of brick).

DS: Put your money where your mouth is and lead by example, by greater use of wood and wood products.

SMcA: If the government is to meet its CO2 targets to comply with the Kyoto agreement, timber frame construction in one form or another is the way forward.