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The poor UK timber culture

There are several respects in which the UK lags behind the rest of Europe, especially northern Europe, when it comes to use of timber. This is most obvious with timber framed housing but it permeates right through from timber production to design.

Background

House building with timber in the UK has until recently been very much of a minority activity. There are signs now that it is on the increase, particularly in Scotland where, until capitalism’s most recent hiccup, there has been strong investment in various kit house and SIP systems. Some of this has been imported from northern Europe, particularly the Nordic countries and Germany where there are strong traditions of building in timber. Scotland saw itself as being at the western tip of the ‘crescent of prosperity’ which covers northern Europe and has also recognised the strong potential of its timber industry.

How it affects the self builder

There are many sticking points for the UK self builder when it comes to seriously using timber. Some of these are –

  • Difficulty in raising a mortgage
  • Difficulty in finding architects and engineers skilled in timber design
  • Lack of builders experienced in timber frame construction
  • Shortage of high quality insulating joinery for the likes of windows and doors
  • Lack of timber sourced locally
  • Few companies willing to saw, mill and kiln timber to order
  • Difficulty in insuring a timber house

This all adds up to a lamentably impoverished timber culture in the UK and the question arises as to why this has come about. Answers you sometimes hear are that the great fire of London had such an effect on the national psyche that it has never recovered or that timber grown in the UK is so low in quality that it is only fit for paper making. However neither of these explanations really accounts for the situation as it now is. Why is there such a poor timber building culture in the UK?

Is it the poor supply of indiginous timber?

Particularly over the last century or so government policy applied to forestry has been appallingly badly handled.

According to Oliver Rackham, in his outstanding book Woodlands, one of the major problems with the whole approach to growing timber has been the decline of wood-pasture and woodland in favour of plantations, starting in the latter half of the 17C and reaching a peak in 1973. He describes the period 1950 – 1975 as “The years that the locust hath eaten”. The policy and practice of plantation timber was nearly always flawed, not least in the species planted. “In England, during and after the Napoleonic wars, the Crown tried yet again to convert those Forests where it owned the land to oak plantations, foreseeing the need for 74-gun ships-of-the-line and for boot leather and artillery-horse harness should there be a world war around 1940”

This emphasis on plantation forestry was acquired from German forestry practice via British government initiatives in India and Cyprus in the late 1800s. It was boosted in the early 20C as a method of providing work for the unemployed. The massive amount of tree felling during the first world war led to the foundation of the Forestry Commission in 1919 but the stop-start, half baked nature of the Commission policy has continued almost to the present day. Probably the most consistent actual aspect of recent forestry has been as investment (and ways of saving tax) for wealthy landowners and the ‘sport’ of pheasant shooting. Rackham again – “Forestry, like much of agriculture, became a vested interest in search of a function.” By far the greatest part of woodland in the UK is shot for pheasants. It can be difficult to find woodland which is not. Go and look carefully at your nearest wood and spot the plastic feeding bins for pheasants. That provides the greatest value of the wood and that often determines the way woodland is managed, particularly regarding the understory which must give cover to pheasants. Woodland is not particularly grown for its timber value, which is currently so low.

In a sense, forestry policy in the UK has almost never been about respecting woodland for what it is. Almost always the motive has been detached from this – materials for war, materials for industry, ‘solving’ unemployment, managing nature, providing investment opportunities and a stage set for ‘sport’ (“pheasant shooting will be sport when pheasants carry guns”).

Even within the narrow scope of growing timber for utilitarian purposes the plot has been lost. One only has to look at the failed Forestry Commission approach to species planted, or other ‘functional’ uses of timber which have changed purpose:

  • Oak was planted for naval purposes just as ships were starting to be made of iron
  • Douglas fir and Larch were planted just as pit props started to be made of steel
  • Poplar was planted for the match stick industry just as lighters became popular
  • Sweet chestnut, though plentiful in the south east and an excellent outdoor timber (superior in some ways to oak) has never properly come to market (except as palings). Nice use of the timber here
  • Conifers were planted in large monoculture plantations with little intention to produce anything other than paper pulp to send to Sweden. Belatedly Sitka spruce is now finding other uses.
  • Lawson’s Cyprus (scourge of neighbour’s hedges) has now proved a good cladding material
  • Sycamore has been heavily planted throughout the UK and no-one seems to know any reason why – whatsoever! If you look it up in a manual on timber it usually states that it is useful for milk pails!, chopping boards and occasionally drawer sides. ’nuff said. (Sycamore could in fact be extensively utilised, given a different culture around timber useage. It is, for instance, excellent for draining boards, unlike beech which is often used).
  • Willow has recently been widely planted as a crop to feed power stations but this seems to have gone wrong due to technical problems and beetle attack.

Fortunately, over the last couple of decades there has been quite a change of heart and estate forestry has moved to the fore. Emphasis is no longer on monoculture plantations but on management aimed at a mix of amenity use, quality timber supply and nature conservation. Natural regeneration is encouraged. The only fly in the ointment here is that almost all the ‘woodland conservation areas’ are in fact large pheasant rearing plantations which are highly managed in terms of ground cover plants, extermination of predators and spreading of corn (with the odd red kite thrown in as conservation)

Is it the deskilling of the building industry?

The attitude of a house being an investment comodity rather than a joyous place to live has been a major factor in deskilling the building industry. This coincides with the class based approach which the UK has to the building industry (and to education in general where a university education is somehow considered better than a full apprenticeship. In Germany, for instance, the apprenticeship involved in becoming a master joiner is highly regarded and results in a highly respected status in society. Hardly so in the UK. Since the middle of the 1950s the attitude to trades, crafts and skill has been devalued with the resulting disrespect between customers and builders so often leading to arguements over quality of workmanship and other misunderstandings.

The UK unlike much of  seems to have a limited culture around the use of timber for house building

Is it a heavyweight attitude towards design?

For some reason there is a pervasive attitude in the UK that houses are good if they are very solid looking, heavy, conservative in appearance, a bit boring but with the odd tip of the hat to some kind of tradition. This doesn’t play well with timber which can often look light and traditionally unfamiliar. Neither does it tend to play well with ecological design which is usually about ‘living lightly on the land’. There is the arguement that the past success of the UK has come from a heavyweight attitude coupled with a “where there’s muck there’s money” approach. Lots of heavy industry and heavy masonry.

Is it a confused legacy?

The subject of timber is heavily imbued with all kinds of myths, historical values, romantic associations, etc. This is a complete hotchpotch of things with ignorance featuring quite strongly.

  • The ‘nobility’ of some trees, oak, elm, maybe beech (but not sycamore), presumably picked up from Romantic poets and writers.
  • Vague historical pagan values of ‘the holly and the ivy’ type or bits about yew trees and graveyards. Not necessarily untrue but………..and aspirin seldom mentioned.
  • Investments as tax relief. There has been a tradition of giving long term tax breaks to wealthy landowners who have woodland. This has probably had the positive effect of preserving some areas of woodland but has mainly skewed the rationale of making good use of timber and woodland in favour of pheasant shooting and inheritance tax avoidance.
  • Snobbery. The use of light woods vs. dark woods is deeply entrenched in snobbery. Historically the ruling classes in the UK and much of Europe have favoured dark timbers such as walnut, mahogany, teak and other tropical timbers. (Oak is an odd exception though it is often stained darker). This is directly related to Europe’s domination of its various colonies where these timbers grew. Contrast this with the less colonising Scandinavian’s preference for lighter coloured timbers such as birch, maple, beech, pine, sycamore, aspen etc which you see a great deal more of in, say, IKEA. These Scandinavian countries have maintained a deeper connection with their own craft industries which traditionally used lighter timbers. There is also a legacy of timber cladding such as rain screens being seen as rustic (in the straw chewing yokel sense, especially when rough sawn), part of the assumption being that ‘rural’ was worse than ‘urban’.
  • ‘wisdom’ about which timbers to use where. There seem to be traditions about which timbers are most appropriate for particular purposes and these seem to be more based on tradition than fact. This may have occured when crafts merged or changed focus. For instance what was appropriate for ship building may have been transferred over into building waterwheels.
  • There are areas of almost complete ignorance. Try asking a joiner questions like:
    • would hornbeam make good kitchen units?
    • what do you do about the way oak opens its grain when exposed to weathering?
    • does beech make a good draining board (erm – no, though so many people try it)
    • can you use willow for structural building purposes?
    • what is the difference between Scots pine and redwood?
    • is UK grown Scots pine actually useful for building work?
    • what can you use sycamore for? (a timber so common it is almost seen as a ‘weed’)
  • all this is related to why the UK is jokingly known as the firewood producer of Europe.

 

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