Case Study

Welsh Timber Industry

The Low Carbon Built Environment (LCBE) project is part of the Low Carbon Research Institute. This research theme, based within the Welsh School of Architecture, has looked at the built environment sector, from planning through design and construction to operation, across a range of scales from component, to building, to regional projects.

LCBE’s Work Package 3 focused on the Welsh Timber industry. The team, led by BRE’s Nick Tune, looked at ways to increase the use of Welsh timber in construction by developing design strategies for components and buildings that exploit the properties of Welsh timber and minimise its shortcomings.

Part of their research involved developing strategies that would review the current infrastructure of the industry, advise on ways to implement changes that would both increase output and revenue, develop jobs, and utilise new techniques to maximise the quality of locally produced Welsh timber.

The Welsh timber industry is estimated to be worth £429 million, employing 9000 people. There is relatively small coverage of forest compared with the main Scandinavian competitors. Welsh woodlands only occupy 14% of the country, with the majority of the timber consisting of Sitka Spruce, a coniferous evergreen.

The majority of welsh timber currently being produced is relatively low-quality softwood, due to the mild and damp climate. This results in fast growth periods, which results in a low-density, and therefore low strength-grade product. However it is possible to add value to the timber by utilising new timber product manufacturing and production techniques.

One way to do this would be to ensure that a higher percentage of timber processed by the Welsh sawmills is strength graded, as currently this is not happening. This means that the majority of the timber is assumed to be a lower grade use, and is not being used to its full potential.

Their findings also showed that factors such as the maximum available sawn timber sizes also pose challenges to the industry in Wales. PassivHaus standards typically require a minimum frame depth of 300mm for wall thicknesses, but current upper limits for Welsh sawn timber is around 215mm – cutting themselves out of the market.

One of the main strengths of the industry is the breadth of expertise, suppliers and manufacturers that it includes. There is a current disconnection within the supply chain, between producers and processors. However, there is a huge potential to increase the efficiency of this supply chain with improved systems and communication. With the government commitments to new regulatory standards for all new homes to be zero carbon by 2016, the market for low cost and low energy building materials will increase, and by utilising Welsh timber, rather than wood sourced from abroad, construction firms will be able to save money, and remain within the environmental regulations.

In essence, whilst there are still challenges to overcome, LCBE’s findings showed that this industry has a lot of opportunities, both for growth, and to improve efficiencies by adapting best practice, but due to the nature of the product, these changes will take time, and require a long term strategy to maximise the potential within the industry.

Nick Tune, LCBE’s Work Package 3 Project Leader and Director of BRE said "Our research with the LCRI shows that the Welsh Timber industry has a lot of potential, and with the right support and development, will be able to expand and thrive. This will give the construction industry in both Wales and the UK the opportunity to utilise home grown timber, lowering carbon output, and re-investing in locally sourced Welsh building materials, and therefore the Welsh economy."