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Choosing good wood. The story behind your timber.

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The environmental and ethical story behind the timber we buy has been with us for a long time. There is increased awareness of the issue, but it’s important to ensure your timber has a good story behind it. Reece Turner explains how to find green timber amid the forest of tall stories.

The origin of your timber

Decades of news reports about the plundering of the Amazon rainforests, the broadscale clearing of Indonesia’s tropical peat forests or even the loss of our own native forests have helped remind us that timber can come with huge environmental and social costs. Have you ever wondered where the timber used in building or renovating a house or from a piece of timber furniture just purchased has come from? Despite increased awareness, it’s important to take steps to ensure your timber has an ecologically sustainable and socially just story to tell.

The Australian Government estimates that around 10% of timber products imported and sold into Australia come from illegal operations, but it could be much higher. Certainly the proportion of timber products available to purchase that are sourced from unsustainable logging practices is far higher.

The timber which creates a beautiful hardwood timber floor or deck, exposed timber beams or
even the simple architraves that line a bedroom all have a story to tell. It’s remarkable to reflect that the timber used in your house was once a living, growing organism and it’s probably the only material in your house to be able to make this claim (unless you happen to have a beehive feature wall).

There is good cause to take special care when choosing timber materials. Tropical rainforests – the primary source of dense, strong hardwood timbers – are home to around half of all species found on earth, yet now cover less than 10% of the earth’s surface. Every day, these forests are destroyed to 

produce timber for markets such as Australia. Forest destruction is responsible for about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. This is because forests trap carbon and help stabilise the world’s climate; when they are destroyed carbon is released, contributing to climate change.

Yet timber is also a renewable resource and if the right timber is selected, embedded energy savings can be made and your purchase can assist ethical and ecologically sustainable timber operations. And it is, of course, a beautiful material to add warmth to your home.

How to choose the correct timber

How can you ensure you make the right decision when choosing timber? Here are three key things to bear in mind:

1. Can you source recycled timber?

This should be your very first priority. By rescuing
or salvaging used timber you are ensuring that no further environmental damage is caused from your selection and, in fact, you could be preventing waste as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Obtaining recycled timber is not always easy and if timber is a significant part of your structure you might even want to consider adapting your design to suit the timber you have been able to source. The key to sourcing recycled timber is research and persistence.

2. Certified timber

If sourcing recycled timber is not possible, the next best option is to insist on certified sustainable and ethical timber. This is especially important if your 

timber selection is tropical or hardwood. Generally speaking, hardwood timbers take a lot longer to grow and are more difficult to replace. While you can spend time identifying at-risk species and more sustainable species, the best way to help guide your purchase is by ensuring the timber is certified. The only international certification endorsed by environment groups such as Greenpeace and WWF is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) scheme.

3. Know the story of your timber

As mentioned above, all timber materials in your home have a story. Perhaps your timber frame came from certified pine plantations in southern NSW, your feature wall is from a recycled wharf or your timber deck came from a small-scale ecoforestry operation in Papua New Guinea. While claims of recycled and certified timber can provide some surety, nothing beats your own diligent homework and the persistent questioning of your suppliers to ensure you know
the real story behind your timber materials. In most cases, this process will take some time. And despite the emergence of timber certification and concerns about the source of timber, many suppliers and builders either remain ignorant to this issue or will resent being bombarded with questions that don’t relate to cost or quality.

So imagine now that you’re sitting at home, relaxing on a weekend, admiring those exposed timber collar- ties or the solid hardwood floor in your new home. It’s worth knowing the story behind that timber and it’s certainly a great conversation starter. You’ll be able to boast about the mixed-species plantation

in Queensland where you finally tracked down your hoop-pine or imagine the rainforest where the single tree was carefully selected and felled in order not
to disturb the whole ecosystem, and after which the area was closed off and left to recover. 

If you don’t know the story behind your timber, it could be possible it found its way into your house as part of an illegal operation, or came from a monoculture plantation that replaced a healthy forest and the thousands of species that had called it home.

Ethical and sustainable timber materials are not always easy to come by. Prepare yourself to ask the tough questions, be patient in sourcing your timber and indeed pay a little extra. Your time, effort and money will provide arguably the most beautiful of all building materials at a price the planet can afford.

Certified legal or sustainable? Or both!

When asking suppliers about the origin of timber, the usual response is that the timber has certificates or paperwork to show it is legal. Of course we all want timber that is legally sourced, but we also need to be sure that timber has not come from environmentally destructive logging. This means we need to keep pushing for evidence that timber is ‘certified sustainable’.

Some of the most common ‘certified sustainable’ labels on wood products sold in Australia are the FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council), the AFS (Australian Forestry Standard) and the affiliated PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification). The FSC has consistently been shown to have much more robust requirements in areas such as environmental impact and the inclusion of indigenous peoples’ rights and for this reason is the only label to get the tick from international environment groups. 

Learn more by buying the entire book

This article is one of many useful articles in the book entitled "How to rethink building materials". The book can be purchased online as a hard copy or soft copy (e-book).

Table of contents - "How to rethink building materials"

  • Part 1 Overview: What it's all about
    • 1.01 Creating sustainable change - Barriers to getting the message through.
    • 1.02 Choosing materials from an early design stage - Questions to ask at the beginning of a project.
    • 1.03 Managing change - How to avoid the downside of the building industry's inherent aversion to risk.
  • Part 2 Forethought: A look at the issues behind the choices we make
  • Part 3 Planning: Unfamiliar but essential considerations
  • Part 4 The Great Debates: Contested ideas about material impacts
  • Part 5 Uncommon Solutions: The fast-approaching horizon
  • Part 8 A-Z of Building Materials