Tropical transformation and timber towers

Australia’s timber trade is evolving in response to a combination of value adding in tropical countries and a revolution in wood-based building, writes John Halkett, Managing Director, Forestlands Consulting and General Manager, Australian Timber Importers Federation

"Changes to the nature of imports and product use are interesting aspects of the Australian timber industry and also, I suspect, being experienced in other major timber-consuming countries. 

At a time of overall increases in timber import volumes, including engineered wood products, traditional tropical hardwood imports are declining. Why is that?

To some degree the changes coincide with legality assurance legislative requirements that, not surprisingly in the case of Australia, put the spotlight on Southeast Asia.

However, declining tropical hardwood imports are also explained by some exporters going up the value chain. As you can see from a comparison of Mynamar and Malaysia’s trade, it’s a logical progression.

Myanmar annually, exports about 800,000 tonnes of teak and hardwood timber and earns US$400 million.  By contrast 60% of timber products imported from Malaysia are now in the shape of furniture.  So overall it ships 300,000 tonnes of timber and earns US$6 billion for wood-product exports. 

This means that Myanmar generates only US$500 per export tonne, while Malaysia earns US$20,000. It’s a staggering difference, all down to the fact that the former’s wood-based businesses remain predominantly ‘low-tech’, while Malaysia has climbed smartly up the value chain and now exports more wooden furniture than basic timber products.

The maths is simple enough, but it is also a vital aspect of improving the economics of tropical forest retention for producer countries to produce more than just logs and sawn timber.   

However there are other factors at play in changing Australian timber trade trends, namely innovation in building systems and products and a changing climate change abatement message in construction. Increased imports of engineered wood products are the result.

As in Europe and North America, a particularly interesting trend in this area in Australia is the growing momentum for taking engineered timber into the formerly forbidden territory of tall building construction.  Products like Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) are gaining traction, with Australia, in fact, posting some notable firsts.

At 32.2m, our first ‘massive timber’ building, Melbourne’s CLT-based Forté tower, is currently the tallest modern wooden apartment block in the world.

And the Docklands Library and Community Centre, now under construction in the same city, will be the first public building globally to be constructed from prefabricated CLT panels. 

Overall, CLT use is expanding rapidly, with the key drivers including demand for more sustainable buildings with a smaller environmental footprint, and growing awareness of the material’s performance 

CLT has acceptable thermal and acoustic properties, and structurally is a match for pre cast concrete. It is also two thirds of the latter’s weight, results in a cleaner, simpler, faster and consequently more cost efficient construction process and also scores in terms of carbon storage and life cycle carbon emission attributes.

According to Andrew Nieland, Head of Timber Solutions at development company Lend Lease, use of CLT is Australia’s most significant construction technology innovation in  years. 

“CLT will transform the industry by introducing a more efficient and environmentally friendly construction process than has ever been undertaken before,” he said.  “With increasing numbers of people moving to urban areas and the resulting urgent need to create liveable, sustainable climate-positive cities, it’s a timely development, and Lend Lease now aims to develop 30 to 50% of its apartment pipeline using CLT.”