How to meet the demands of sustainable design with timber

Christian Jebsen, CEO of Kebony, explores how advances in technology have meant that sustainably-treated timber is an ideal choice for the shrewd self-builder due to its resilience, strength and aesthetic appeal.

The task of building a home from scratch is a rewarding and fulfilling experience but it can also be a daunting one, even for those with experience in construction. The sheer quantity of factors to consider; decisions to be made and costs controlled, mean that sustainability – frequently an important motivator for the self-builder – can be side-lined. While environmental technology has advanced rapidly in recent years under increasing pressure from consumers and NGOs (non-governmental organisations), the cost of such technologies on the scale that is required for the construction of a home can sometimes mean that sustainability features lower down on the overall design agenda.

However, this need not be the case as deploying the right techniques and a know-how to material selection means it is possible to construct homes which are as environmentally sound as they are aesthetically pleasing, without being completely unaffordable.

Wood has historically been a popular choice as a construction material for its strength and its beauty, although the rise of environmental and regulatory pressure means it has been used less frequently of late. Indeed, the EU Timber Legislation came into effect in March 2013, which bans illegal wood from entering the EU Market in an effort to curb the alarming rate of deforestation. While tropical hardwood possesses unique properties, which render it invaluable to building and construction, there are many innovations and technological developments that are allowing us to use sustainable wood in its place, thus protecting the valuable rainforests which are vital to preserving the earth’s atmosphere.

In recent years particularly we have observed rapid advances in timber-treatment technologies that have given rise to new possibilities for the future of wood as a construction material, without incurring devastation to the environment. One of these processes involves the treatment of sustainably sourced softwoods with furfuryl alcohol, bio-waste produced from crop farming. The wood is treated with the liquid alcohol under pressure so that the cell walls are permanently strengthened, making the wood more stable and resilient. This complex process gives the wood equal and often superior structural qualities to tropical hardwoods, making it the ideal material for robust construction.

The process increases the wood’s durability and resistance to wear and weathering, thereby circumventing the need for expensive and environmentally-damaging chemical treatments and prolongs the wood’s lifespan. With improved durability and dimensional stability, the wood maintains it strength and will not decay. Rather than deteriorating in extreme weather conditions or exposure to heat, light and wear, treated timbers will, over time, acquire an attractive silver-grey patina. Furthermore, treated timbers are protected against fungi, insects and other microorganisms, meaning that they are ideal for use in hot tropical climates as well as in wet, windswept locations.

The organic aestheticism of woods should also not be understated – whether coupled with metal and glass for a modern, minimalist appearance or used for the decking or cladding of a warm, contemporary build, the aesthetic value of the material is indisputable. It is important to bear the appearance of different types of treated-timber in mind when buying for this very reason. Copper can sometimes be used to fortify wood, for example, but this frequently leaks out over time causing stains and a need to be replaced. One should select a timber that will perform without relinquishing the attractive, organic appearance that makes the selection of wood such a popular route for specifiers and architects.

The selection of sustainable materials is of paramount importance to the ensuing sustainability of the building. Treated timber has the ability to bypass the need for maintenance, painting or varnishing, meaning that it is as ergonomically sound as it is environmentally and it is therefore unsurprising that it is fast becoming the choice of people across the construction industry. What we can learn from the proliferation of these new technologies and methods is that the future of timber construction is filled with the potential to incorporate innovative and imaginative ways to meet demands for sustainability in building. Technologies like those outlined above champion new possibilities for wood as a construction material and a prudent selection for the well-informed self-builder.