Volume 24, No.03 - March 2016

Analyse, test, deliver


Timber research has arguably led to some of the most innovative product developments to be found in the construction industry, with new ideas and manufacturing opportunities rapidly transferring themselves between countries around the globe and stimulating previously unconsidered areas of investigation.


But using the term ‘timber research’ is perhaps too general for a field that embraces disciplines as distinct as silviculture, wood science and timber modification, product development, construction technology as well as more recent thinking about the nano-technological possibilities inherent in the molecular structure of the trees grown in different parts of the world and their very different characteristics. 
We are familiar, for example, with the travels and researches of the likes of David Douglas who brought seeds from unusual species in north America to Europe where, on replanting, they grew to form the fir trees that now carry his name here and in France (where its proponents have lobbied to trademark the locally grown material as le Douglas). Similarly, the Sitka spruce introduced from the Pacific west coast of Canada to the UK after WW1 as a relatively disease-resistant, fast growing, straight softwood to replace the massive volumes of timber that had been felled to provide material for trench linings and pit props during WW1 is now our predominant production species in the UK. We have copious volumes of larch too, with the European and Japanese versions dominating in different parts of the UK. 
But just as we have imported the seeds of many different species over the past few hundred years, so too have we immigrated a range of diseases affecting not only timber quality but also the very existence of a several important species. Dutch elm disease virtually eradicated one of the finest trees in the UK landscape, whilst today ash, oak, larch and Scots pine are all under threat from rampantly spreading pathogens. The catastrophic impact of this on our forest sector has opened up whole new areas of research, not only into ways of combating the respective viruses involved, but also into identifying new uses for the felled timber that maintain some, if not all, of the raw material’s value, rather than simply seeing it burned as a means of destroying the infections. 
Whilst we continue to search for solutions, an international example of original thinking about what is possible can be found in the Richmond Oval, the ice skating arena built for the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010. The mayor of Richmond wished the building to highlight the area’s landscape and economy to the world which, in British Columbia, are both all about trees. A significant problem in realising this ambition, however, was the fact that the region’s pine trees were blighted with a beetle infection that was ravaging the resource. Engineer’s Paul Fast and Gerry Epp (Fast+Epp) developed an ingenious response to this challenge, the result being glulam beams that span the 90 metre arena, with intermediate ‘wood wave’ beams manufactured from standard sawmill sections to provided astonishing acoustic control to a building type that is normally highly resonant due to the hard reflective surfaces involved. The overall result is a quiet and, paradoxically, warm-feeling space that utilizes wood from 6000 diseased trees, with the added benefit of a huge volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide being locked up in the material. In this example, understanding the properties of the native species, the nature of the disease and its possible effect on the structural capacity of the timber (it remained structurally sound) allowed the engineers to analyse, develop and test their proposition at full size and in doing so fulfil the brief given to them to demonstrate the potential to construct large scale, modern buildings from the local, albeit infected, resource. 
The potential to engineer our way out of problems brought by disease or to find new and better ways to raise the value and the construction potential of low quality timber has, in recent years, brought different areas of research into closer proximity. Take the UK forest resource for example, an area long ignored by the country’s construction sector, its preference invariably being for imported hard and soft woods. Indeed, the UK is, after China and Japan, the world’s third largest importer of construction timber, with consequential effects on the nation’s balance of payments. Making better – and greater - use of home-grown material ought to be a no-brainer, but as recently as 15 years ago insufficient information was generally available about the characteristics and properties of dominant softwood species such as Sitka spruce, European larch, Douglas fir and Scots pine, only the latter of which is actually native to the UK. Who now remembers the term ‘wall of wood’ that was current in the industry at that time and referring to the volume of material reaching maturity for which, with the decline in pulp and paper production, there was then no obvious market?
With the bulk of the UK’s production forestry located in Scotland, the need to find new and hopefully higher value added uses for the material was paramount -particularly the Sitka spruce which (as a fast growing species native to the Pacific northwest of the USA and Canada) had been extensively planted. There was, however, a significant problem: developing new products from this natural, variable resource required a sound understanding of its properties and potential, but surprisingly, relatively little such information was available in a form readily accessible and useable by the manufacturing, design and construction sectors. True, Forestry Commission Bulletin 77, published in 1988, attempted to bring together the various areas of research that had been carried up to that point, but the subsequent decade had seen many significant changes in the forest products sector including a substantial increase in the volume of wood harvested from British forests; increasing investment in sawmilling infrastructure; rapid growth in the market for timber-frame houses; the development of common European standards for assessing the properties and performance of wood products; and the emergence of a biomass sector in response to concerns about the impact of fossil fuels for energy production. Perversely, at that time, almost all of the wood used in timber frame construction came from abroad whilst the output of UK sawmills largely went into making  a range of low value products – fence posts, palettes and potato boxes, as well as panel board manufacture chipboard, Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and oriented strand board (OSB). 
Into this breach stepped the (then) recently formed Centre for Timber Engineering at Edinburgh Napier University, a specialist unit intended to address some serious market challenges identified by the Scottish Forest Industries Cluster, principally the lack of engineers designing in timber who were graduates in timber engineering and the lack of timber content in the teaching curriculum for undergraduate engineers, the absence of both substantially mitigating against the specification of timber and timber products in new construction.
The recent announcement that Edinburgh Napier University had been awarded the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education 2014-16 for “innovations in UK timber construction reducing the carbon footprint and for international advancements in wood science”