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Sell me systems, not just a material

Charlie Law   06 Oct 2014 Sourcing responsibly, Sustainable design

Timber is a natural material, and we know that different species behave in different ways, depending on the environment they are used in. However, the timber supply chain does not always point out these variances, and what needs to be done to control them, meaning that we sometimes end up using the wrong material for the job in hand, or the right material in the wrong way!

I believe this is because much of the timber we use is still sold as a commodity in the main, and little or no information is provided when supplied like this. This results in over specification in structural elements, possibly increasing costs, and mistakes caused by limited information, resulting in reduced confidence in the material.

For example, take a standard 200mm x 50mm (8” x 2”) length of softwood timber, strength graded to C16, that would typically be used as a floor or roof joist. If I was using it in a suspended timber ground floor, under normal conditions, this would be able to span around 3.5m. However many timber suppliers would not normally provide information on the spans it could be used for, so over specifying to grade C24 timber could increase cost. Also no information is given on where service penetrations and notches can be placed, or how the material should be stored. Is it any wonder we end up with problems?

The problems are not limited to structural timber. We also have issues with finished items, such as the wrong type of nail being specified for a timber cladding, causing staining, or the wrong type of flooring being specified over underfloor heating, which subsequently shrinks or cups, and there is a campaign at the moment around issues with the specification of fire doors, which if wrongly specified, could have devastating consequences.

Timber cladding has to be carfeully specified

It is all too easy to say that this is someone else's fault. The architect should have contacted TRADA for the right information, or the builder should have consulted with an engineer, or the contractor should have used an experienced carpenter, etc., etc. But the fact is that timber is one of the only materials that has not moved forward and become a fully system built component.

I love timber as a material: it is versatile, looks great and I would love to see it used more in construction. It is the ultimate renewable resource and fits in well with the latest circular economy thinking. The UK produces 10million m3 of softwood saw logs per annum, but less than 20% is currently used for construction, meaning there is scope for higher value use. The south east alone could meet the whole of the UKs hardwood needs, with potential for 10million m3 of saw logs per annum.

Therefore I think that we need to rebrand timber and ensure that it is sold as a set of parts for a complete system, rather than an individual commodity, with the right fixing and specification guidance, rather than relying on someone else, who does not know the material, to get it right.

BAM's Somerstown Community Hub glulam spruce timber frame

We already have some good examples such as engineered joists, glulam and cross laminated timber for larger structures, engineered flooring for using with underfloor heating. As an industry we need to embrace these further and dispel the myth that there is an increased cost for providing them, especially when we take into consideration the cost of putting right the problems. I believe the timber industry also needs to:

  • Provide the best information available, including which components should be used with which timber products
  • Develop engineered ‘kit-of-parts’ solutions, rather than leaving it up to designers and contractors to develop bespoke systems
  • Ultimately, move away from selling timber on its own, and sell the majority as part of a system

 

 

 

 

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