Timber, the Inconspicuous Welfare Queen

Timber can seem like a benign building material, but the ubiquity of timber is actually dependent on an ample supply of fossil fuels

A few weeks ago I had the fortunate opportunity to attend an excellent weekend bamboo course with Giant Grass on the outskirts of Melbourne. Along with a thorough overview of bamboo and its uses, a group of us spent a couple of days designing and then putting together a bamboo structure at an urban community garden.

On what was the first day of the course we were doing a bit of Q & A, and one of my fellow attendees had this to ask: "If I want to build a small structure, say 12 feet by 12 feet, is it going to cost less if I build it with bamboo or with timber?" When it was cordially pointed out that building with timber would cost less, her disappointment with the whole bamboo venture was readily obvious. Without missing a beat however our instructor then asked an excellent question in return: "Why do you want it to cost less?"

Granted, this woman was also interested in building a small structure for an urban community garden, which generally have few funds to work with. These issues can easily lead to the discussion of quality (which has copious variables) versus quantity (the desire to fork over the least amount of cash), but that's not a tangent I want to touch here.

Stacks and stacks and stacks

Our instructor did then point out that okay, if you grew, harvested, and cured your own bamboo – doable on a small scale – then sure, the bamboo structure could cost less. But not only were we in a massive city where that generally didn't happen on any appreciable scale, but neither is bamboo grown in Australia on a scale for anything much beyond cutesy ornamentals and tomato plant stakes – and even those are often imported. In other words, bamboo doesn't enjoy the economies of scale that wood does, and you can't just go to your nearest big-box hardware store and pick up the bamboo equivalent of a 2x4, be it at a comparable price or even at all. And we're talking Australia here, where the stuff can grow like weeds.

Although in the ensuing days my head was fired up with the newfound possibilities of bamboo, the notion of cheap wood stuck with me, and it was just a short time later when alarm bells went off as I recalled a book I'd actually finished a few days before the bamboo course: Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own: The Architecture of Daydreams.

It's recalled in the book how back in the day the common method of building with wood was post and beam. A rather conservative method of building, it often entailed getting your friends and neighbours together to give a helping hand to bring it all together (imagine an Amish barn raising).

Aligning the matchsticks

This all got superseded however with what we now sometimes call "balloon framing." Balloon framing is easily recognizable as the common building method for suburban tract housing and which uses copious amounts of 2x4s and other machine-cut pieces of wood. With good reason, these are sometimes referred to as matchstick-houses (to which the big bad wolf might concur).

Pollan's just a tad off though, for he states that "balloon framing is a product of the machine age: it would never have developed if not for the invention of the steam-powered sawmill (which ensured a ready supply of lumber of consistent dimensions)."

To be a bit picky, it's not so much machines (such as a sawmill) that make "lumber of consistent dimensions" possible. Rather, it is the copious availability of fossil fuels that are able to power machines with such massive amounts of energy and that in turn allow for the ubiquity of balloon framing and other energy intensive, modern methods of building. In other words, and so long as you have the trees, a water-wheel powered sawmill could get you a bit of timber. Emphasis on could and a bit, because without the fossil fuels, no matter how many machines and sawmills you have, comparatively speaking, you aren't going to be milling all that much wood.

To bring nails into the picture, prior to the early-19th century nails were hand forged, and so the way that we attach our slabs of wood together by wantonly blasting nails into them would have been utterly prohibitive. As Pollan then puts it, "It was the Industrial Revolution that, by turning nails into a cheap commodity and trees into lumber, prepared the ground for this radical new way of putting together a building."

More monster machines!

In other words, without the availability of cheap fossil fuels, the ease and accessibility of these modern building methods would hardly exist. And speaking of wood, it doesn't stop there.

To procure the massive amounts of fast-growing trees for all this requires huge monocultured forests, pesticides (and the planes to apply them with), and legions of teenagers and others to do the grueling work of tree planting. To raze these "forests" – for clear-cutting is what you do when you grow trees in large-scale monocultural methods – requires a whole other slew of machines and fossil fuels to get the job done.

And by no means does it stop there. Once the trees have been harvested they still have to be loaded up, transported to the mill, milled, transported to a warehouse and/or store, sorted, then transported – yet again – to the worksite or to one's house. All of which requires large amounts of fossil fuels to accomplish – wood is heavy.

Not to say that with constrained supplies of fossil fuels wood becomes a write-off. Certainly not. But I think it's worth noting that even a very "green" and sweet-smelling thing such as wood is drenched in oil like much else nowadays, and its ubiquity if not accessibility wouldn't be so care-free if it weren't for the energy subsidy it gets from fossil fuels. In other words, modern timber is a welfare queen.

Slow wood?

Will milled timber be around in our post-fossil fuel era? Obviously. That being said, it probably won't come in "endless" shapes and sizes straight off the shelf as it does now, it will probably be used much closer to where it is grown than it is now, and, if selective and agroforestry practices can spread far and wide, it'll probably be valued – and not just monetarily – more than it is now.

And in case you didn't notice, these implications have significant ramifications on the rest of our current and conventional building methods, and what is essentially the modern artist's and architect's cult of novelty. But that's fodder for another post. As will be the interesting applications of bamboo.

A former filmmaker, now jawboning on the collapse of industrial civili­s­a­tion and the renewal of culture. .