Follow-up from the BIG Debate

The Home-Grown Homes Project focuses on supply chain development in the production of timber homes in Wales from forest to housing construction, its aim being better homes – better designed, specified, manufactured and built. As part of The BIG Debate at WoodBUILD 2019, difficulties around producing timber homes using wood sourced from Welsh forests were widely discussed.

Investing in Welsh timber resource

Jasper Mead. PYC Group

According to manufacturers we can maintain that timber frame systems are enabling us to create highly energy efficient housing. However, for many, 90% of the timber used in the manufacture of wooden homes needs to be imported. For Jasper Meade of PYC Group  the case for investing in Welsh forestry and timber resource is clear: ‘We currently do buy from Ireland and other European countries, but transport is going to get more costly and availability less certain. So if we could produce our own and use the forest for amenity reasons, to supply fuel and construction and many other purposes… Progress on the agenda seems very slow but it is happening,‘ says Jasper.

Jasper sees an opportunity for joinery products, too. ‘It would be fantastic to have heat treated timber in Wales. I can order a pack of standard timber and get in to my yard within 2 days. If I want Welsh timber it is much harder.’

The grading question

Owain Williams. Williams Homes Ltd

Owain Williams from Williams Homes adds to this pointing out responsibilities across the supply chain: ‘We see the biggest issues being the availability of the specific grade of timber needed. In my opinion if there was a great need for a specific grade and quality then the mills would invest in segregating this higher graded timber in order to sell it to a different sector, whether it be for joinery or structural.’ One of the more innovative sawmills, Pontrilas have recently implemented chain of custody for Welsh sawlog throughput, their completed packs of C16 spruce are clearly marked as Welsh spruce.

An advocate for investment into the local supply chain, Owain is clear on the importance of planting and forest management: ‘We are also very aware that planting needs to be at the forefront of any woodland policy and we believe that as awareness and demand increases in home-grown timber then we are careering towards a catastrophic problem regarding the issue of lack of suitable timber for our industry so we must address the problem of planting TODAY.’

Business terms and choice of goods

Part of the problem is not just the availability of the right material at the right time, business conditions play their part. ‘The credit terms are far worse for homegrown than when I purchase from the big importers. If it was simpler to get hold of under our usual credit terms then we would always choose the Welsh option.’ confirms Jasper. But it is not about adopting practices of the main exporting countries. PYC are currently purchasing highly engineered products from Sweden and boards from Ireland. According to Jasper, ‘it would be foolish to try and copy technology from those countries, we should be looking at different parts of our market needs and what we know we can specialise in.

Focus on performance

Jasper’s main focus is on quality and performance: ‘What I’d like to see is high performance standards in housing’. As part of the BIG Debate PYC have pledged to continue to develop systems that deliver performance and are based on the use of Welsh timber. In January, Jasper visited a site PYC and Carbon Dynamic built in Scotland, The Social Bite Project community hub centre in Edinburgh. ‘This was successfully built using Welsh and Scottish timber, a rewarding project, an exemplar in what can be done with timber frame using our indigenous timber.’ he says adding: ‘This form of construction using home grown timber is set to continue in Wales with housing schemes which have had invaluable help from IHP funding from Welsh Government. I look forward to when we can replicate social enterprise schemes such as the Social Bite in Wales.

Does size matter?

Darren Jarman. Lowfield Timber Frame

Darren Jarman from Lowfield Timber Frame has a similar perspective. ‘As timber frame manufacturers we are keen to use as much timber as we can. We want high-value but also we want to use what’s available. We bring in eight loads of CLS from abroad every week.‘ Sawmills often don’t hold the sizes required by the manufacturers. ‘Yet there are other sizes the sawmills are producing.’ says Darren. For him, the key to success lies in creativity and willingness to adapt: ‘With some changes to our design we could start using this Welsh grown and processed timber.

Changing designs to change the tide

While Darren is amazed by the potential for home-grown homes it still is a very niche, low volume market and needs to grow substantially to feed into the existing timber construction supply chain. According to Darren ‘We are right on the cusp of being there’. For Lowfields Timber much depends on people from different parts of the supply chain talking to each other. ‘We have had discussions with the Welsh timber supply-chain and we are ready to get this market going, but it is going to require a change in what we do.’ he says.

Since then the team have worked on design adaptations and most recently, the first load of Welsh timber beams arrived in the yard. Initial trials making panels with the home-grown material have demonstrated the high quality of Welsh timber and its suitability for modern construction. This is also what Williams Homes reports. The firms’ carpenters have noticed no differences between home-grown and imported spruce and neither have their clients.

Darren’s clients are responding positively to the new option. Some are already looking to commissioning Lowfield Timber Frame buildings made from Welsh wood with the first projects scheduled for delivery later in the year. We’re looking forward to reporting on the results!

Pioneering the potential

Williams Homes has been an enthusiastic user of Welsh-grown softwoods for at least a decade. The Bala firm gained extensive experience utilising home-grown softwoods when they constructed the glulam and brettstapel extension to the Coed y Brenin visitor centre near Dolgellau. Pontrilas Timber kilned the mixed load of Sitka spruce and Douglas fir to the low moisture content required for this project. This was a pioneering approach by both, sawmiller and contractor-manufacturer.
Williams Homes’ latest social homes project at Llanbedr has delivered high efficiency timber framed constructions which surpass RIBA embodied carbon benchmarks using Welsh-grown spruce C16. Douglas fir sawlogs for the external cladding were sourced from Mid Wales and processed by a small local Bala sawmill.

We currently have an order book of approx 125 houses and have aspirations to use predominantly home-grown timber in the manufacturing of the timber frames and internal joinery for all these units.’ confirms Owain.

The question of price and loyalty

As a relatively niche market, Welsh-grown C16 comes at a cost. Those committed to using home-grown timber tend to pay a premium of around 10-12% over imported C16 spruce from central Europe which is currently in over-supply. For Owain Williams this kind of B2B loyalty is essential to kickstart a circular economy during this transition period as Welsh firms invest in building resilient local supply chains. Willingness to collaborate and change ‘the old ways’ seems essential for every part of the supply chain, from growers to social housing developers. We can see signs of this across the sectors. Change is coming for sure, the question is just how fast.

Find out more about the developments in planting, management and grading in our next newsletter.

Read about government commitments to drive change in procurement rules here

Discuss the future of Welsh housing made from home-grown timber at WoodBUILD 2020.