Red oak tree

Timber is talking and the media are listening

by webster_wickham


It is a breakthrough development for our industry. Journalists are starting to ask the right questions about forests, wood, carbon and climate.

Just the other week, we took AHEC’s cross-laminated U.S. tulipwood demonstration building MultiPly to Madrid, having previously been on show in London and Milan. The media coverage was tremendous, not just in the architectural press, but in mainstream newspapers and on national tv and radio, potentially reaching millions. And the focus was on the value of timber construction in urban environments, building with lower environmental impact materials, multiple storey wood buildings, healthier buildings, more sustainable buildings. All those messages we put out were picked up and broadcast loud and clear. We were delighted!

In another example in the UK, the flagship BBC radio news magazine, PM, has an ongoing focus on forests. They are looking at their role in the carbon and climate cycle, sustainable management and timber. The BBC’s Costing the Earth series also recently featured a programme on ‘Superwood’. This investigated the latest uses of timber and wood fibre and their environmental credentials and value. They included cross-laminated timber in construction, highlighting its technical and carbon storing performance – and the interviewee was Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton, the architects behind MultiPly. 

MultiPly Madrid long shot
MultiPly was on display for another iteration in Madrid in February.

In the past, what media coverage wood got tended to default to deforestation; the fact that multiple football field-sized areas of rainforest were disappearing each week and, more often than not, the timber sector was held in some way culpable, with little differentiation made between legal and illegal timber trades.

That is now changing. Climate change and the environment are now constant topics of media attention. They are examining the issues more closely and are not just focused on the problem, but interested in solutions.  Underlying the trend is no doubt increased climate activist campaigning; with the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and those key influencers, 90-year-old naturalist, broadcaster and author Sir David Attenborough on one side, with the huge reach of his television series, and on the other Greta Thunberg, who is not even 20, but has inspired a whole generation to believe they must and can achieve urgent change in global policy on the environment.

The forest fires in Brazil and notably Australia have also sharpened this focus. Their severity was the result of exceptionally dry conditions, outside the normal climate cycle. They brought home that climate breakdown is happening now and that it can seriously affect economies and lives. They made climate change that much more tangible.

Forest carousel image
Climate change and the environment are major topics in the media.

For the timber industry, this upsurge in media and consumer interest and awareness is a huge opportunity. We not only have a great story to tell, presenting wood as part of the solution to climate change and environmental degradation, today we can underpin that story with more evidence and better tools and data.

One of AHEC’s developments, our online interactive forest map, is making a particular impact. This is based on the latest data from the US Forest Service. It shows forest growth and removal in huge detail, drilling right down to county level. It provides a new level of interactivity and source of quantitative data and specifiers who have used it say it has really opened their eyes to both the scale and sustainability of the U.S. hardwood forest.

We have also perfected our application of life cycle analysis (LCA). Our user friendly LCA tool can be used to calculate the carbon and other environmental impacts of supplying a volume of a particular hardwood species anywhere in the world and it further illustrates the sheer size and renewability of the resource. It shows, for instance, that a cubic metre of the most prolific U.S. hardwood, red oak, grows every 0.57 seconds!

In the latest update of the Seneca Creek Report, we have evidence of timber legality that is second to none and we can also stress that the U.S. hardwood forest renews of its own accord with minimal human intervention or use of pesticides or other chemicals. Of course, there is a place for planting and plantations in some parts of the world. But natural forest has been shown to be especially resilient and rich in biodiversity.

We can highlight too that U.S. hardwood is not one material, but a multitude, each species performing differently and offering a unique aesthetic ­– and we are working with architects, designers and end users to broaden their range of uses, from decorative to structural applications.

So we have a huge amount to say about timber, its technical, carbon and wider environmental performance, we are better equipped to say it and the media and market are listening more than ever before.


David Venables
AHEC Director