The Future of Wood

Published Thursday 03rd July 2014

What does the future hold for wood?

While we may not have jet packs or flying cars quite yet, there's no doubt we're living firmly in the future. Although we're only a decade in, the 21 st century has seen exciting developments in disparate fields, from medicine and consumer technology to renewable energy and beyond.

However, as part of a rather interesting trend - the world of construction has taken something of a sidestep from focusing on new synthetic materials in favour of a time-honoured favourite - wood. In this article, we'll take a look at what the future holds for timber - in terms of both grand construction, jobs that are closer to home and some categories that are firmly outside the box altogether.

Why Timber?

As environmental worries over climate change have grown, we've been forced to look at the things we can do to reduce our impact on the planet's resources. One key area of focus has been the construction industry and while it's not feasible for people to simply stop building things - changing the materials that are used and the way these are sourced can be of great benefit.

It's therefore easy to see why wood has come to the fore as a great option. Trees actively absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting it into the air we breathe. The captured carbon will remain locked away for the entire life of the tree - even if it's subsequently turned into other products.

Wood is also a highly sustainable material to invest in. Its biology and lifecycle enables forests to be used as carbon sinks, products to be created and greater numbers of trees to be replanted to replace their precursors.

Grand Designs

The demand for space in urban areas is unlikely to dwindle any time soon and since we can't indefinitely spread out horizontally - the only way is up. For as long as we've been building skyscrapers, office blocks and other large-scale structures, we've been putting them together with a mixture of concrete and steel.

These materials require a significant amount of energy to source and process, which is just one factor that could prompt a regression toward wood in the coming years. There are obvious challenges to building with timber on such a scale, but ancient Asian architects have provided proof of concept - constructing towering timber structures for centuries.

Modern planners, builders and architects have been keen to take advantage of wood too and one great advance in the field has been the development of cross-laminated timber (CLT). This material consists of a layered panel, composed of thin wooden boards that are glued together in alternating orientations.

Constructing the panels in this way makes them sturdy, rigid and resistant to fire - making them the ideal candidate to replace the pre-fabricated concrete panels that currently make up many of our modern buildings.

While CLT is nothing new, having been in use on projects for the best part of a decade, the scale in which it's used is set to grow in the coming years. One vocal proponent of wooden skyscrapers is Vancouver-based architect Michael Green.

His Ted Talk on the topic is a must-see for those with ten minutes to spare, but to summarise he's been working on 30-story wooden buildings using mass timber panels made up of young trees that can be engineered to varying degrees of thickness.

"If we built a 20-story building out of cement and concrete, the process would result in the manufacturing of that cement and 1,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide. If we did it in wood, in this solution, we'd sequester about 3,100 tonnes , for a net difference of 4,300 tonnes. That's the equivalent of about 900 cars removed from the road in one year," Green said.

The UK is ideally situated to take advantage of this trend, with a readily available stock of timber available both close to home and on an import basis. And it'll certainly be interesting to see how the commercial construction sector adapts and responds to the challenges of sustainability in the coming years.

Closer to Home

Timber's bright future isn't restricted to massive projects, however and there promises to be many developments in the field that will be a boon to the average homeowner and builder alike.

Accoya

A true 21st century timber product, Accoya has seen a massive uptake in the past decade since it came to market. It's created by manipulating the wood acetylation process to improve the technical properties of wood.

By altering the material's cell structure, it's possible to change groups of free hydroxyl (which are responsible for climatic contraction and expansion in wood) into acetyl groups - reducing the wood's ability to absorb water.

The end result is an improvement in stability, as well as an increased resistance to fungi and insect infestations - making it the perfect option for those seeking a long-lasting material that works brilliantly in windows, doors, cladding and conservatories.

3D Printing

While it's better-known for its use of plastics, metals and other synthetic materials - wood can look forward to a warm future in the world of 3D printing. Using wood powder, filaments and in some cases even solid blocks 3D printers can churn out items of unparalleled complexity and imagination.

The unique aesthetics offered by handcrafted wooden furniture have long been sought-after, but price has proved a barrier for many. Could this trend herald a new era of arboreal egalitarianism? In the near-term, it's unlikely. Consumers will simply be trading one price barrier for another as they fork out for expensive 3D printing equipment and specialised materials.

Attack of the Clones

The forests of tomorrow could be populated with clones thanks to the machinations of one shadowy organisation.

Only kidding - the Ancient Tree Archive is actually a group of benign arborealists dedicated to propagating the planet's oldest and most hardy trees. The mission statement of the non-profit organisation is to use these old growth clones to create thriving ecosystems that mitigate the effects of global warming.

Tomorrow's World

We've barely skimmed the tip of the iceberg with the above products and the next few years will undoubtedly be an exciting time for timber.

If you think we've missed anything obvious or simply want to share your picks for innovative timber products, give us a shout on Twitter. We always love to hear what you have to think.

And if you're looking for quality timber to suit any job - big or small - be sure to check out our wide range ofproducts, or simply get in touch with us today.

Image used courtesy of Brian Snelson on Flickr