Structural material of the 21st Century: timber vs concrete

Wood Focus magazine
17 Dec 2012

It seems like no time at all, but it is almost two years since this magazine carried a question and answer feature on plans by the Wood Studio at Edinburgh Napier University’s Forest Products Research Institute to investigate the possibility of cross laminated timber (CLT) being manufactured from UK grown timber.

The project, which began for real in January 2011, has been developed within the Wood Products Innovation Gateway (WPIG) – a £1.48m project designed to bring at least 20 new products, process improvements or construction systems using home grown timber to commercial reality. 

Supported by the European Regional Development Fund, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, ConFor and Wood for Good, the initiative is now 24 months old and progress on all fronts has been significant. The CLT project, however, leads the pack – it is the structural product most in demand by the UK construction industry and the one most likely to deliver the kind of high added value target set for the outputs of the WPIG project. 

A conference in Edinburgh at the end of October 2012 provided the forum for research and test results to be presented to the forestry and timber processing and manufacturing sectors. The underlying objective was straightforward: the homework is complete and key players in the industry now need to calculate the return on investment achievable from the establishment of a full scale, commercial production facility. 

Acoustic and other grading tests have been carried out in forests across Scotland, Northern Ireland and northern England over the past 10 years by the Strategic Integrated Research in Timber (SIRT) project led by Edinburgh Napier University and, more recently, by the Forestry Commission into project resource capacity. As a result, we know that the quality and quantity of raw material required to feed the manufacturing process is now – and for the next 25 years – available. Fabrication and structural testing carried out by the University’s Centre for Offsite Construction and Innovative Structures has demonstrated that CLT panels made from home grown sitka spruce are capable of meeting Eurocode 5 manufacturing and structural requirements. And market studies carried out on behalf of FPRI/WPIG indicate the substantial opportunities available for a CLT product made in the UK from UK grown material. 

The route to commercial reality is therefore well underway and the next stage will potentially see the required levels of investment being brought together, the site for a manufacturing facility identified, and the first spade in the ground to signal the beginning of its construction. We may be less than two years away from the boldest initiative in engineered timber manufacturing the UK has seen to date – an initiative soundly underpinned by wood science and engineering research. 

Progress on this and other Wood Products Innovation Gateway developments will appear in future issues of Wood Focus, together with features on the work of FPRI’s other research centres. From cellulose-based high strength materials to smallscale, commercially viable thermal modification processes, modern wood science is not only being applied to good effect, it is now being married to pioneering timber engineering and construction concepts. 

Further information 
A registered architect, Peter Wilson is director of the Wood Studio at Edinburgh Napier University’s Forest Products Research Institute.