It’s time to buy British

A wide range of imported timber products are now hard to come by thanks to various supply issues, but the solution is close at hand, says Tom Barnes of Vastern Timber

Various timber products, including roof battens, structural timber and timber cladding, are in high demand this year, and it is well known that supplies are not keeping up.

Long and short term factors are at play. This year, global demand hit a record high in the post-lockdown housing boom, resulting in many construction materials becoming extremely difficult to obtain. Added to that, over 80% of the timber used in the UK is imported, and these supply chains have been impacted by Brexit, Covid and a changing climate. In the years to come, an increased focus on the carbon footprint of construction will surely lead architects to specify more sustainable materials, leading to yet more demand for wood.

For all these reasons, finding external cladding timber can be challenging at present. Favourites like Canadian cedar and Siberian larch are in very short supply, while prices for these products have risen by 50–100% so far this year.

But the good news is that many locally grown timber species are well suited to external cladding, and these are often cheaper, and more readily available, than imported alternatives.

British-grown timber cladding
There are many timber species grown in the UK that are suited to exterior applications. Native western red cedar, larch, oak and sweet chestnut make excellent cladding due to their natural durability. Modern modification processes such as thermal modification can be used to transform locally grown ash, poplar and sycamore – species not normally suitable for cladding – into a durable cladding option. It’s becoming an increasingly popular alternative to imported hardwoods among specifiers.

It’s gratifying that many customers are choosing locally-grown, thermally-modified timber based on its strong environmental credentials. Thermal modification is a non-toxic process that heats timber in controlled conditions, producing a stable, durable material that resists rot. Modified timbers have their own characteristics, for example thermally-modified British-grown ash, sycamore and poplar is lightweight and durable, but it can be slightly brittle, so requires more care during installation.

Thermal modification is a toxin-free process resulting in a very stable and durable cladding material. Since 2016 we have used this process to transform British grown woods into a beautiful, long-lasting cladding range which is grown here in our own woodlands.

‘Bio-based’ materials
Minimising the use of carbon-intensive materials such as concrete and steel and using bio-based materials like timber could be key to achieving a low-carbon economy. With these pressures affecting the whole planet, we in the UK cannot rely on importing 80% of the timber we use. We must aim to be more self-sufficient, which means planting more trees and using more locally grown wood. Let’s use these timber shortages as an opportunity to start making the switch.

Much Wenlock Case Study
Recently named one of ‘Britain’s Greenest Streets,’ this Passivhaus development for a local housing association comprises 12 homes of various sizes, clad in thermally modified, British grown timber cladding.

Timber homes in Shropshire are nothing new, but this exemplary development of energy efficient, affordable homes uses locally sourced, natural materials combined with Passivhaus principles and modern processes to excellent effect.

The housing association commissioned leading Passivhaus architects, Architype, for the project. UK sourced natural materials were used, including locally quarried clay roof tiles, local lime render and locally grown cladding. The Treehugger website called the project ‘radical simplicity,’ but we call it common sense.

Wood Centre for Innovation Case Study
The Oxford Trust’s new innovation centre at Stansfeld Park is an inspiring development, providing space for science and technology start-ups, and teaching facilities for primary-aged science education.

Built in the ‘urban wildspace’ of a former quarry, these impressive buildings are designed to fit with the leafy surroundings of mixed broadleaf woodland and natural ponds. To this end, all facades are clad in locally grown timber cladding that will be allowed to weather to a neutral grey over time.

The development called for a cladding that would be durable, cost-effective, and sustainable, in the true sense of the word. The order for 1400 m2 of our Brimstone poplar cladding was one of the biggest yet, and it’s hugely satisfying to see such a large development entirely clad in homegrown timber.

Tom Barnes is managing director at Vastern Timber