The packed Woodbuild Wales event in June gave the clearest view yet of just how versatile and modern this oldest of building materials is. The audience learned what a central role Welsh timber can play in tackling the county’s acute need for affordable, fuel-efficient housing – and for jobs.

Shayne Hembrow, Deputy CEO of Wales and West Housing and Chair of Woodknowledge Wales set the scene, describing how he was a firm convert to building with Wales’ own timber resource.

“The housing sector of all our industrial sectors has probably seen the least impact of new technologies – housebuilding is still basically a few people in a muddy field!” Timber he said, is ideally suited to new technologies that open the way to volume building – while hitting environmental, economic and social sustainability targets too.

And this was not just theoretical – as deputy CEO of a major housing association, he builds houses. “We have always done the standard brick-and-block procurement, but building in Powys we thought – can we use our own trees, they are all around us. We built 11 flats in Rhos-on-sea using a lot of Welsh timber. It  transformed my thinking  – the argument for building in Welsh timber is now compelling to me.”

The need for action is acute. Ed Green of the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff set out the stark figures. “Wales needs to build 14,200 new homes per year over the next fifteen years”  – yet lst year completions were only half of what’s needed – and social homes, where the need is most acute, only made up a fifth of what was built. Energy performance is still poor, yet a staggering 40% of Welsh households suffer fuel poverty, he said.

If the old ways are not delivering the goods, the potential for modern, rapid, affordable and   high performance timber building  shone out from the day’s presentations.

Peter Wilson treated the audience to a parade of beautiful timber designs and construction styles, from very traditional (and gorgeous!) green oak and fir pegged frames, through much lighter, quicker stick build approaches.

Adrian Farey of Elwy working woods showed an engaging video of the centuries-honoured green timber approach to building, still alive and thriving in north Wales, with a community barn build, literally from the tree, sawn, shaped and erected.

Elwy Working Woods is a co-operative managing 100 acres of woodland, and employing young people. Adrian Farey is passionate about keeping young people from leaving the rural areas by offering skilled, satisfying work, and ensuring the whole supply chain is ultra-local. “Should the profit go to the bank, or stay in the community?”

Peter Wilson explained another ultra-local technique. Bretstapel (timber strips dowel-laminated to form solid boards) uses small, lower grade timber so nothing went to waste. “Bretstapel is a simple technology – panels can be assembled very very locally out of a very local resource,” Bretstapel was used by Architype to build a lovely oval ‘pod’ at the Burry Port primary school in Carmarthenshire, one of the many Welsh Timber buildings in Juraj Mikurcik’s presentation.

One of timber’s excellent properties pointed out by Peter Wilson, is how light it is for its strength, making it a first choice not just in rural areas, but on urban sites where there were too many buried services and tunnels for standard foundations.

Timber has proved very durable, as our centuries-old timber buildings demonstrate. While the most resilient timber comes from slow-growing hardwoods – or from cold-climate softwood like Baltic pine – thermal modification (heating) and chemical treatments like acetylation open the possibility of bringing this longevity and durability to other, faster-grown species, Wilson explained.

Modern timber building – and the use of offsite construction – was now creating its own vernacular, Wilson believed, sharing some mouth-watering images of the simple – and amazingly economical – timber homes that have recently been erected in Skye. “The R-house by Alistair Dixon build put up with a local builder, for less than £100,000 – and went up in a day,” he said, adding that with typical Skye weather (as  shared by Wales), it was a great advantage to be able to carry out a lot of the construction in a dry shed.

Offsite construction is also being pioneered closer to home, of course. Japser Meade of PYC shared his enthusiasm for the way  offsite construction brings precision into building, making a great match for the quality-assured, ultra-efficient approach of Passivhaus.

As an installer of blown cellulose insulation (Warmcel),  he was already in the thermal performance business – and the best insulated wall in the world will be badly let down if a building is not airtight. “Building regulations represent the worst you can build and still be legal. And too many buildings even fail to reach that level, and the building inspectors miss the fact. With Passivhaus, the construction is monitored, and tested at the end – the build is guaranteed built as designed.”

Architect and session chair Doug Hughes shared just a taste of the many ways his firm takes advantage of what timber can do – from classy upgrades enlivening and extending dull and tired traditional builds, through affordable timber housing to experimental techniques employing local timber.

Another home-grown offsite system – driven by the belief it could and should be done  – has been developed by Western Solar. Jens and Gareth from Western Solar described their first development of highly-insulated, high-renewables social homes, in Pembrokeshire. This is now occupied, and plans are advancing for more across the country.

In a pioneering move that crystallises the potential showcased in so many of the talks, Powys County Council has launched a Wood Encouragement Policy. The council’s head of housing, Simon Inkson, used the Woodbuild Wales event, appropriately, to announce the policy: “For the first time for 40 years local authorities can build again, and we want to build new energy efficient affordable homes for Wales, maximising the opportunities for employment and wealth creation.”  In Powys, where land and timber are so abundant, this is the way to do it, he said.

Fuel poverty is a big issue in Powys, households have very low disposable income and no mains gas meaning fuel costs are high. Energy efficiency was essential. Like Adrian Elwy, Inkson was very concerned about young people being priced out of the housing market and leaving the area. “We have local industries that grow, process and manufacture what we need for our new homes. We must maximise the use of them.”

As the day demonstrated, Powys has a massive choice of approaches to meet their housing need and celebrate their policy – it  very much looks as though opting to build in Welsh timber is the modern thing to do.

Kate de Selincourt