European and North American designers continue to develop outstanding wood projects highlighting the material’s nature and potential. With the current pressures to develop more sustainable building technologies, new and innovative products are emerging from both markets at an exceptional rate. Many believe that the center of innovation in the development of new wood products is shifting to Europe.  As an American living in the UK I have found great value in observing the variation in approaches regarding these developments.

Variations between North American and European innovation may in part be the result of broader cultural differences. While North America lacks the history and depth of masonry tradition, and has been predominately a wood-building culture, our short history is also surely plays a part in our disposition toward wood product innovation. With a living memory of frontiers and near endless resources, the ‘new’ is valued so highly that disposability has traditionally been tolerated. There is a much greater appreciation for the ‘permanent‘ on this side of the Atlantic. Tradition and history are also more meaningfully confronted here than in North America. As a result, high quality, long-lasting wood products are emerging from the European market which are simple, beautiful, and unburdened with the compulsory pastiche of faux traditionalism so common in the American market.

Undoubtedly, the urgency of addressing environmental issues is a driving force for innovation in both Europe and North America The differences in response to these issues is also illustrative of variation in approaches. American product development is led by production, and broad industrial scale changes appear to be more rapidly achievable. However, size can be a hindrance to subtlety, which may impact incremental change. In addition, the American tendency to address these issues in terms of embodied energy as opposed to carbon has a direct bearing on the development of wood products. Another significant difference in environmental consideration is the greater chemical sophistication of the European approach.

In general, the move toward more sustainable forestry practices has been advanced by the requirements of mainstream green building certification systems such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and BREAM (Building Research Establishment’s (BRE) Environmental Assessment Method). In fact, this trend is so prevalent that the FSC (Forrest Stewardship Council) brand has become a household name in North America. While incongruities are still being sorted out concerning varying requirements for the chain of custody between FSC and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) the two systems have nonetheless tremendously contributed to the adoption of more sustainable forestry practices. On both sides of the Atlantic major manufacturers, such as Weyerhaeuser and UPM-Kymmene, have made meaningful commitments to the programs and both offer broad lines of certified products.

Engineered structural lumber products are ubiquitous in North America; however, Germany has emerged as a leader in development of new technologies. Products such as LVL (laminated veneer lumber), Glulam beams, OSB (Oriented Strand Board), PSL (Parallel Strand Lumber), and I-section Truss Joists, are often manufactured in facilities that produce little or no waste and maximize the use of resources. With the exception of Glulam beams, the efficiency achieved by these products often comes at the expense of presentability requiring them to be buried beneath additional finishes. As a result,there are now numerous innovations coming out of Europe that show a promising elegance and simplicity. Cross Laminated Timber is one of these simple products creating a stir in North America, but finding greater implementation in Europe. The tallest modern wood structure in the world is currently a ten story CLT housing project in Hackney, East London.  Currently attracting great attention in the press, and with the construction of a twenty story tower in Vancouver, BC about to being, this technology is poised to experience rapid growth in North America.

SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) also appear to have a larger market share in America. SIPs, frequently paired with heavy timber frames, are an increasingly common solution to the challenge of constructing simple, high performance building envelopes. However the most interesting developments in this market are coming from Europe. Europe, in particular, is making strides using wood fiber-based insulation.  While there are a few American manufactures of wood fiber insulation boards, the technology is primarily used as a loose-fill insulation in North America.  Additionally, many of the American insulation board products have not yet been rated for inclusion in fire rated assemblies, thus limiting their market viability.

Even the development of many successful North American wood products had early missteps. Notable among these early challenges was the composite wood fiber decking boards that now enjoy a broad market share on both sides of the Atlantic. Early on in the development of these products, the longterm effect of exposure to ultraviolet light was not fully understood. As a result, many installations suffered from a warping process that eventually made them appear to be were slowly melting. These problems have been overcome for some time and many high quality products are now available.

Exterior cladding is another set of a products that contended with early problems and missteps. Early American generations of pressed wood fiber clapboards and molded wood shingles were prone to swelling and capturing moisture. There are a number of high quality options on the North American market, with real wood cladding and cementitious products being among the most common. Unfortunately, vinyl siding is still a very common selection. The American taste for the imitation never ceases to amaze me, and vast tracks of new housing are proudly encase in boldly disingenuous vinyl siding. In the States it was a joy to work with real wood cladding, particularly making use of regionally specific species. Here in the UK wood markets are far less segregated, making it possible to source genuine wood and composite products from the same manufacturer.

The most prevalent composite wood products in North America are exterior trim boards. However, these tend toward cellular PVC products which include little or no wood fiber. Composite trim boards, including cementitious products, may indeed have achieved a larger market share then real wood trim boards. Unlike here in Europe, high quality American extruded or expelled composite products are common only in higher value applications such as windows and faux architecture millwork.

It is encouraging to see firsthand the European approach to innovation in wood products. Europe’s heightened appreciation of durability and greater chemical sensitivity are most instructive. Canada and America continue to make strides, and tastes do seem to be moving away from adamantly demanding imitation of traditional products to a more honest appreciation of the material and its new possibilities. It is impossible to conclusively declare either continent the seat of current innovation, but the competition is indeed a healthy one.

Ryan Elias Kanteres, AIA LEED ap BD+C

Cambridge, UK, 8th October, 2012

Posted on: 9th October 2012.