Lowfield Timber Frames                            DEF0056

Written evidence submitted by Lowfield Timber Frames

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry -Sustainable Timber and Deforestation

Price and availability of timber supply

Structural Timber prices are set globally, with the major producing and exporting countries to the UK currently being Sweden, Finland and Germany. Raw material and production costs will be calculated by the producing sawmills with the commodity sections and grades (CLS/C16/C24) sold to the Country prepared to pay the highest price. There are of course other considerations that determine the destination of Scandinavian and Northern European goods, these would include historical and reliable trading partnerships, shipping logistics, exchange rate fluctuations, etc.

Pre Covid, all our CLS was purchased through UK timber importers and prices were generally fixed for a 12-month period. This was based on a committed volume and prices would generally fluctuate year on year. During the Pandemic, timber prices soared, and availability became limited.

Covid implications

• Timber mills initially shut down due to Covid, but many sites in the UK stayed open, depleting the timber on the ground.

• The construction industry returned much quicker than expected, which also coincided with the annual shutdown of the Scandinavian milling operations.

• Due to an unprecedented warm summer, the quantity of timber used by DIY’ers rose exponentially to create outdoor spaces during lockdown.

• The global market was affected as the US started purchasing European timber. This was at a significantly higher rate than importers could get in the UK, so shipments were sent across the Atlantic.

Native grown producers’ prices invariably have to follow the trend of imported goods, unless incentives are put in place to use home-grown, and they compete mainly on C16 graded timber with just a little CLS produced. It is of course difficult for a smaller sawmill with an inferior raw material (faster grown more heavily knotted) to achieve the economy of scale of some of the larger Scandinavian/European producers.

It is believed that the availability of Imported goods will remain high in future, but at times a high price will need to be paid to secure the supply. Global demand is set to rise, and the UK market will need to be prepared to pay the going rate and lean upon those historical relationships and established trading terms to ensure goods arrive at our shores. The feeling in the industry is that it will be difficult for the Native Grown producers to significantly increase their production volumes and that if they could, the established fencing/pallet and C16 customers would rapidly take up the additional goods. Incentives need to be put in place to ensure this additional volume is directed towards the construction industry, where the carbon capture will assist the Net-Zero agenda.    

Source of raw material

When looking at our timber mix and consumption over the last two years, most of it has been C16. It is believed that over 90% of the C16 used in the construction industry is currently imported. This is something which could be produced in the UK if the correct incentives and policies are put in place.

In 2009, Lowfield Timber Frames made a commitment to be certified under PEFC (The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification).

This is a leading global alliance of national forest certification systems. This audited process, which occurs every year, ensures we procure all our timber through sustainable and responsible supply chains. This ensures the timber we buy doesn’t have a negative effect on global deforestation, but is managed for future generations.

Extensive research into EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) has found that there are two key areas which impact timbers carbon footprint, processing the timber into a usable section size and it’s transportation. The carbon emissions picture for timber means that Scandinavian mills, which have invested heavily in the use of renewable energy and are more efficient in timber Processing, emit less CO2 than others, hence there is a lower carbon footprint currently from buying abroad. Sweden as a well-established timber producer is ahead of the game. This means the UK needs to catch-up but at least we have room to do it. It needs a joined-up approach.

The UK market A recent STA (Structural Timber Association) publication ‘Structural timber market research: residential sector - October 2022’ indicated that 22% of the UK house building sector was in timber frame, this would suggest that the value of the industry is £690m (based on an average of £15K per unit) and has the potential to more than double in size over the next 25 years - if the ambitions of the UK Government are realised.

Figures from the National House Building (NHBC) suggest that timber frame market share has developed from 19% in 2015 to 22% in 2021 and that market conditions present the opportunity for this to develop to circa 27% by the end of the forecast period (2025).

What we can say is that until recently, the timber frame industry has not been populated with many blue-chip organisations’ and has had a spread of manufacturers ranging in size from £3m to more than £100m turnover. There is clearly a greater appreciation from the majority of the national housebuilders that Governments net-zero aspirations are real, and that timber frame is really the only way to go. This is highlighted with moves by UK housebuilders such as Countryside Properties, Vistry, Persimmon, Taylor Wimpy, Barratt, Miller Homes and Crest Nicholson to open up their own timber frame factories. Hence the demand for timber is only likely to increase.

It has always been difficult for the smaller manufactures to innovate and meet the needs of the market without truly understanding the incentives put in place by Government, creating the drivers behind the decision-making process. With more national housebuilders and Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) having their own timber frames facilities, a clearer pathway may evolve.

At Lowfield Timber Frames, we have seen many sectors such as care homes, hotels and student accommodation move away from timber frame over the past few years, primarily due to fire regulations in high-rise. Educational buildings however are becoming a big part of our portfolio after a significant boost following the launch of the Government’s 10-year school rebuilding programme, with one of the aims to promote greener projects to help meet the Government’s net zero target with a focus on MMC. In the past 3 years, we have successfully delivered 6 new schools, 4 achieving Passivhaus certification.

This is a sector where the clients are valuing the net-zero aspirations first and foremost.

Changes in regulations

The Governments net-zero targets were initially viewed as the springboard needed for the timber frame construction industry and the dawn of a sustainable revolution. Unfortunately, the focus seems to be on operational carbon over embodied carbon, and too many construction businesses are promoting net-zero homes, but this is merely in terms of operational energy.

Almost 50% of the carbon footprint of a building goes into the construction phase, yet the targets set seem to be focused on operational carbon via SAP and an EPC A rating. To achieve an EPC A, the building needs a huge amount of renewables technology which in itself creates a huge amount of embodied carbon to manufacture.

We always try and adopt a Fabric First approach, promoting materials with low embodied carbon. Even when constructing to Passivhaus standards (which would only achieve an EPC B rating) we try and avoid materials which have poor EPD’s (Environmental Product Declaration). Lowfield’s are pushing the envelope, quite literally, with low-carbon, sustainable and renewable materials and can achieve low-embodied carbon targets advocated by RIBA/UKGBC. We can also build to meet low-energy targets (e.g. 35kWh/m2) if more clients would ask for it. Most homes currently use around +100kWh/m2.

Whilst we see timber and more sustainable insulation materials as the answer to the net-zero agenda, this approach goes against Dame Judith Hackitt’s ‘Building a Safer Future’ report published in 2018. Following Grenfell, this report recommended wide-ranging changes to the way in which the construction industry operates. The report proposed a change in the approach to regulatory compliance, to one where construction professionals look at buildings as a whole to make ‘higher risk and residential buildings safe. This led to a government consultation to review various proposals to reform the building safety regulatory system and to prepare a ‘Building Safety Bill’. The Bill is intended ‘to create lasting generational change’ to the way high risk and residential buildings are constructed.

The issue for our sector is many construction companies and insurers are using this bill across the board, steering away from combustible materials in external walls without the knowledge of how they perform in a fire.

One example, a school we had just secured, only for the scheme to go back out to tender as the main contractors own internal technical guidance on the minimum standards for the use of combustible materials in external cladding would not permit anything other than a category A1 or A2 material, despite the fact that many melt at high temperatures. During recent fire tests, a construction utilising recycled cellulose insulation achieved structural integrity for almost 1 ½ hours despite being category E. This is due to the fact the insulation chars and provides protection to the structure. The school was single story, every classroom had its own fire escape, and the building was fully sprinklered. Despite this, the scheme will go ahead in steel or masonry. Fire regulations will limit the use of timber in certain areas and Insulation products need a full review. New insulations (wood fibre, cellulose) with low embodied carbon are frowned upon due to their combustibility but they are the answer to meeting the net-zero targets, especially in low-rise, social housing.

Incentives for true low embodied carbon build methods needs to be the key driver. This doesn’t seem to be the case as Government pushes towards incentivising MMC in social housing and especially PMV (Pre-Manufactured Value) without any consideration to the embodied carbon.

Type of wood needed for construction and whether this can be sourced in UK

The major species used for UK construction timber is European Whitewood (predominantly Picea Abies, a Norwegian Spruce). The maximum strength grade commercially achievable from UK grown trees, which tends to be Sitka spruce, is C16. In the construction industry, home-grown timber certainly carries the stigma of being sub-standard compared to Imported Timber and this will be a difficult opinion to shift without incentives.  This is basically a climate issue as our native trees grow faster, are less dense and have more knots than the same species growing in a cooler climate.

That said, home-grown timber is fit for purpose for use as structural sawnwood in panelised timber construction – but there is no incentive for its use in England. Whilst currently only C16 is available, other grades could be produced (e.g. C24, TR26) given a political focus on wood quality and value throughout the forestry and wood processing supply chain. Woodknowlage Wales (WKW) have been working for many years to address this very issue. Their goal is to turn Wales into a high value forest nation. Most of the timber currently grown locally goes into fencing, pallets, and biomass. But through the Homegrown Homes project, Welsh Government will now provide a 10% uplift in grant level if home-grown timber is used. Coupled with that, the Welsh Government are investigating the sales policies for timber from the Welsh Government Woodland Estate (WGWE) to encourage greater use in construction.

The section size produced will also have an impact on the success of home-grown timber. The driving force behind the actual cross section most used in our industry, is more to do with depth of studs and how much insulation can be fitted between them.  The reality of the situation now, is that the studs are deeper than structurally necessary, even at strength class C16, which has resulted in thinner timbers being offered to the market to maximise yield.  When we have thinner section sizes, the quality and overall stability of the timber (forget strength class) becomes the critical factor; one which has historically tripped up the home-grown market.

Looking ahead, at what point does adding more insulation become futile?  The future legislation suggests we’ve reached that point and now it seems better to ensure other aspects, such as air tightness and thermal bridging is addressed.  You could have the most highly insulated building money can buy, but if your warm air that you’ve used energy to heat escapes, the expensive insulation was pointless. This change gives home-grown timber an ‘in’.  The timber frame industry, who’s staple diet has been 38mm thin CLS from Scandinavia, no longer need thin, deep studs.  Walls could arguably become structurally thinner, giving way to air tightness layers on the inside of buildings whilst also reducing thermal bridging.  The cross section of structural timbers could switch from 38x140 (5320mm2) to say 45x95 (4275mm2).  The added thickness of timbers, alleviating the stability issues of homegrown timber.

As seen previously, engineered timber accounts for almost 20% of our timber usage. This is an area where, with the correct investment, home-grown timber could also be utilised more. CLT is an area where poorer quality timber could be used to create structural components, but the inherent issues with CLT buildings, coupled with the cost, make it unviable in our professional opinion. It was initially seen as the answer to high-rise timber frame but now anything over 11m in height is problematical.

New insulations are also being developed from wood waste which have low embodied carbon, but their uptake will be limited due to the fire classification (wood fibre, cellulose). If investments were made in fire tests with different cross section timbers and insulation types, the industry then has options and the home-grown timber industry finally has a route to market.

There is very little Hardwood used in the UK construction industry for structural purposes. This is saved for some Green Oak constructions which generally comes from France. Tropical Hardwood use is mainly limited to decorative cladding and flooring. In those instances, invariably a species is chosen for some inherent properties within the timber, this could be either for performance or decorative purposes.

Challenges faced by the construction sector in the future

Source of supply of raw material – As things currently stand, we don’t see supply being a major issue moving forward.  Clearly the pandemic had a huge influence on the global economy, and this could obviously happen again. The war in Ukraine is also extremely worrying. Whilst the UK construction industry didn’t import much Russian timber, other industries across Europe would have relied on it and will now be looking to other suppliers. Heaven forbid the war expands into Europe, the situation may change.

Workforce – With Covid happening so soon after Brexit, we are only just beginning to feel the effects of a migrant workforce leaving the UK. Whilst we have never had much of a migrant workforce, many industries within a 20-mile radius of our factory did. That has left the labour pool extremely thin on the ground and recruiting in a rural location is proving very difficult. This could be overcome by adopting a more automated factory set-up, but such a move would be very costly, and it would limit our ability it innovate. We have worked closely with agencies in Powys and have offered 6 Syrian and Ukrainian refugees’ full-time employment. Unfortunately, due to either a change in their circumstances or travel restriction, only 1 remains.

Energy costs – Over the years we have tried hard to reduce the amount of waste we produce as a company and turn what is left into a positive contributor to the business. We initially installed a Ranheat 360KW biomass boiler which took our factory off-cuts and provided heating and hot water for our whole site. As we have grown, a significant investment has been made in installing another Jenson 1MW boiler. This now takes our excess factory waste as well as significantly reduced the amount of timber waste which was being taken from our construction sites to landfill. The energy produced from this puts electricity back into the grid, whilst the generated heat goes into the drying of virgin woodchip which is obtained from forestry thinnings locally and sold onto consumes requiring biomass fuel.

With the price of energy soaring, we are also investigating the viability of other renewable technologies, namely solar and wind.

Suggested recommendations for the inquiry

1. Introduce legislation to encourage timber construction – e.g. wood first (France), embodied carbon reduction (Netherlands), payment for carbon storage (Germany), increased social housing grant levels (Wales)

2. Introduce legislation to encourage the use of local or home-grown timber in construction.

3. Incentivise innovation in the timber construction sector through targeted financial incentives.

4. Support the production of timber components (Wood fibre insulation, I beams, glulam, CLT, timber windows) through targeted incentives.

5. Encourage afforestation, the planting of conifers and the management for higher value applications.

6. In terms of housing policy, ease off on MMC policies and focus instead upon higher fabric performance, reduced embodied carbon and standardisation

7. Support innovators in the timber construction industry to meet the new insurance/warranty requirements in a post-Grenfell risk environment as the risks associated with doing new things using timber (in particular related to fire and water) need managing.


April 2023