Last month Timber Development UK became the largest timber supply chain body in the UK following the merger of the Timber Trade Federation and TRADA, bringing together more than 1,500 businesses. TDUK’s vision is for timber to become the first choice for any construction project in the country, but how far are we from that goal? CEO Dave Hopkins considers the material’s position in the industry today

David Hopkins TTF

David Hopkins is the CEO of TDUK

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is really hitting home, as three key economic impacts of a long war – the supply of raw materials, the price of energy and consumer confidence and spending – take ever greater effect.

The conflict, coupled with the current state of the post-pandemic economy, paints a gloomy picture for the rest of 2022 and beyond. Rising energy costs, inflation, high interest rates and low consumer confidence are all likely to impact key construction sectors.

But despite the negative macroeconomic picture, demand for timber in the developed and developing world is rising, with new uses accelerating that increase. This is not least because so many economies see the deployment of timber as a vital tool in the race to reach net zero.

Demand for hardwoods in the UK rose by 26% in 2021, for softwoods by 21% and plywood by 13% compared with 2020. Last year also saw record volumes of timber imported into the country – a total of 11.7 million cubic metres.

Timber has the potential to play a larger part in a more diversified and resilient construction materials market

One competitive advantage of timber products is that they are relatively low-energy to produce, particularly when compared with high-energy, carbon-intensive products such as cement or steel. With a rise in energy prices among the most significant impacts of the Ukraine crisis, these products are likely to face further significant inflation.

So could a rapidly shifting economic picture place timber in a stronger position as a material choice in UK construction? While economic indicators may be temporary, they do highlight that timber has the potential to play a larger part in a more diversified and resilient construction materials market.

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Policy trends around net-zero construction play well to timber’s strengths as an environmentally friendly and sustainable resource. A recent report from the government’s environmental audit committee (EAC) – Building to Net-Zero –  warned that urgent action was needed to reduce the level of carbon emissions in construction.

The EAC has recommended the implementation of whole life-carbon assessments and a crackdown on embodied carbon in construction.

Similar regulations are already being imposed across Europe in countries such as Sweden, France and the Netherlands. Given the target of achieving a net-zero industry by 2050, it is surely only a matter of time before they come into force here.

As a low-carbon commodity, and a strong carbon capture and storage solution, sustainable timber can significantly reduce the embodied carbon impact of construction. If recommendations such as those from the EAC are carried forward, timber should significantly increase its market share.

It is true that the UK timber sector will need to evolve rapidly if higher demand levels are to be met

In its report, the EAC recognised timber’s potential while acknowledging significant hurdles to wider use. It is true that the UK timber sector will need to evolve rapidly if higher demand levels are to be met.

Increasing homegrown, sustainable supply is one element of this, especially in the face of supply disruptions caused by global events. Tree planting targets for the UK are not yet being met.

We hope the formation of TDUK will address the fragmented nature of the supply chain. While other material supply chains such as concrete are dominated by a few large corporations, there are many thousands of businesses of all sizes in the timber supply chain. This potentially makes collective action and rapid response to market trends difficult.

Some consolidation within the supply chain is underway, and TDUK will be working to create a net-zero roadmap for the sector over its first months of operation. However, more collaboration will be needed to modernise and ensure the sector can deliver on timber’s promise.

A shortage of skills also plays a part in limiting the use of timber. Supply chains for steel and concrete are well established, while timber construction is often seen as a specialism among specifiers and contractors. This leads to misconceptions about wood in areas such as fire safety, which hinder the specification of timber in projects and make insurance companies nervous.

Only recently structural timber was caught up in a blanket ban on combustible material allowed for buildings up to 18 metres, before the government admitted that a more nuanced approach was needed after hearing responses from across the sector. This suggests that the adoption of timber as a first-choice material will require significant cultural change, including upskilling across the supply chain.

Less than one-third (28 per cent) of new-build homes in the UK were built using a timber frame in 2016, and most of those were constructed in Scotland. The use of timber in England, Wales and Ireland is comparatively low, but the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended that its use be increased to 40% by 2050.

And there are material innovations which point to a bright future for the sector. Those interested in building sustainably would do well to learn more about engineered  products such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), which can provide a real alternative to energy-intensive materials. CLT is now being used around the world on many large construction projects, including high-rise buildings such as the 18-storey Mjøstårnet building in Norway.

Products such as CLT open the door for much more adventurous projects to use timber, as well as being suited to offsite modern methods of construction (MMC) promoted in the government’s Construction Playbook.

When all these factors are taken together, it is clear that we stand at a crossroads for the use of timber in UK construction. Market conditions, environmental policy and new innovations are creating a significant opportunity. Yes, there are obstacles to navigate first, but at TDUK we are excited to get started and help steer the sector down the correct path.