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?