Q&A - Sustainable construction

Wood Focus magazine
,
29 Apr 2013

Andy Pitman, Technical Business Development Manager at TRADA Technology, UK, and Chairman of the Wood Technology Society, tells Melanie Rutherford about wood’s increasing role in sustainable construction and why the UK timber industry is keeping it local.

WHEN DID YOUR INTEREST IN WOOD BEGIN?
As I always had a passion for the natural world, I initially read for a degree in biological sciences. However, my third-year dissertation was a study of the deterioration of wood, and this was when my interest in this natural material began. At the time, I had no idea that the timber industry was so important or that it offered so many career opportunities.

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR STUDIES AND WHERE YOU INITIALLY SAW THE INDUSTRY TAKING YOU.
After my Bachelor’s degree at the University of North Wales, Bangor, I continued my studies there with a Masters degree in Forest Products Technology. The 12-month course gave me a real insight into the science of wood and its various industrial applications, including panel products and paper science. During the course, I visited various UK-based wood industries to understand how the theory is put into practice.

I also learnt the basics of forestry and forest management, which enabled me to understand the importance of sustainable forest management and the global trade in forest products.

The course had a large number of international students, which helped me appreciate the importance of forest products trade at a global level from an early stage.

It was during my Masters studies that I joined the Institute of Wood Science as a student member and first used the journal papers to inform my studies.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST JOB IN THE INDUSTRY?
On completion of my PhD, I obtained a lecturing position at Bangor where I was responsible for teaching wood deterioration and protection, nontimber forest products and wood science. I was fortunate to work with a great number of people with a can-do attitude and a real passion for wood.

I have supervised students studying for undergraduate and Masters degrees as well as Doctorates, which has given me the opportunity to work with people from across the globe. Many of my students’ work is wellpublished and several are heading up departments around the world.

WHAT WAS THE MAIN FOCUS OF YOUR RESEARCH?
Most of my research has been on the biology of wood-boring beetles and marine organisms. My PhD students have made several valuable these organisms break down wood, including wood that has been treated with preservatives.

WHERE HAS YOUR CAREER TAKEN YOU SINCE THEN?
I left my university post six years ago to join UK timber consultancy TRADA Technology, where I work alongside 40 others to promote the benefits of using timber in construction, and to help specify timber products, test products for clients, and assist in timber-related disputes.

As a natural material, timber is inherently variable and, therefore, differs from many other construction materials. This makes working with timber both challenging and rewarding.

HOW DIFFERENT IS IT FOR YOUNG PEOPLE ENTERING THE INDUSTRY TODAY?
There are far fewer training courses available at universities, which means most people entering the industry have little grounding in the basic principles of wood science. The new Timber and Panel Product foundation course and the old certificate course both offer a valuable insight into the properties of timber and timber products.

WHAT IS THE MOST EXCITING THING HAPPENING IN THE UK WOOD INDUSTRY AT THE MOMENT?
The sustainable credentials of timber as a construction material means that wood could increasingly be the material of choice. This is particularly the case in terms of its low embodied carbon and its ability to sequester carbon over the life of construction products. This means that in the near future, the UK, like many other EU states, will be encouraged to use more timber in buildings.

WHAT ARE THE MOST PRESSING ISSUES FOR THE TIMBER INDUSTRY AT THE MOMENT?
There are many issues surrounding disease in trees, as well as the potential loss of large areas of plantation forest.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE INDUSTRY DEVELOPING IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
I believe it will grow, although this will depend on the strength of Sterling against the Euro.

HOW DOES THE UK TIMBER INDUSTRY COMPARE WITH THE REST OF THE WORLD?
Many other economies are more highly dependent on forestry and forest products than the UK. This is because they have larger areas of forests available for harvest and, therefore, a greater culture of building with wood – for example, timber frame in Scandanavia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada. For this reason, many innovative products are being developed in these countries.

However, more recently we have seen resurgence in interest in the use of locally grown timber, and I predict that more local sawmills using UK-grown timber will be re-established.

IS THE SECTOR AS POPULAR AS IT WAS WHEN YOU WERE STARTING OUT?
Many times over the last 20 years I have heard people say that ‘the time is now for timber’, but these have proven false dawns. However, the increasing interest in low-carbon construction and the benefits of using timber means that the material has a very real opportunity to meet societal demands, but also locks up atmospheric carbon.