Architects, engineers and other timber specifiers rely heavily on a few commercial softwood species, although “minor” conifers and broadleaves still play an important role in construction and design projects.
The recent increase in engineered wood in Europe and North America relies on large-scale commercial softwood production of Norway spruce, Douglas fir and pine species while research in NUI Galway demonstrates the potential of Irish grown Sitka spruce for cross-laminated timber (CLT) production.
While a lack of supply in Ireland limits the role of minor tree species, this can change as our climate, soil and site conditions support a wide range of species. Minor forest species could be defined in Ireland as all broadleaves and most conifers except Sitka spruce.
As softwoods (conifers) are now more suitable and cost-effective species for construction, broadleaves (hardwoods) are likely to be the choice of designers for furniture, high-class joinery and other specialist uses. The exciting range of species and end uses was demonstrated in projects at the Wood Awards Ireland (WAI).
Although no longer used for large-scale construction, hardwoods were once the species of choice as demonstrated in the roof renovation of Carrickfergus Castle. Regarded as one of the most complete Norman castles of its type in Ireland and Britain, work began on this major oak roof restoration project in January 2019 and was completed last February.
An ill-wind helped the conservation team as the principal trusses of the new roof were constructed from Irish oak felled by Storm Ophelia in 2017. The project team included lead architects Kennedy Fitzgerald and conservation architect Alistair Coey, with major input from the Historic Environment Division, JPM Contracts and other specialists. It was the deserved winner of the WAI 2020 conservation category.
Alan Meredith, Mountmellick, Co Laois, who won the WAI furniture award, demonstrated the aesthetics and flexibility of Irish-grown oak and ash.
In his Vinculum Series, he created functional pieces that “are carved and shaped into more refined compositions, revealing the depth of the material and its tactile qualities”, he explained.
“The innovative aspect of the process comes from the research and experimentation that has gone into the steam-bending apparatus that allows sections of wood to be bent into tight curves.”
The process of steaming consists of taking unseasoned wood and placing it in a steam chamber. After removal, it is placed in a bending apparatus and quickly bent into shape. It is left overnight and then placed on a drying rack of similar geometry for a number of weeks. The wood then naturally dries very quickly in a warm workshop due to the structural changes the steaming process has caused to the wood. This process allows Meredith to create standalone furniture as well as wall pieces.
He uses a similar process in making sculptural wood-turned vessels. “The intention is to create wholesome and strong forms that reveal the qualities and strengths of the oak, which has a robust character and is malleable when steamed,” he said.
Chaim Factor of Hill Picket Studios, near Avoca, Co Wicklow, adds value to even the smallest pieces of wood. Working in homegrown oak and sycamore, he makes sets of commonly used table utility tools for use with butter, paté, relish and jams.
“The design brief sets out to enhance the classical paddle butter knife and secondly to reimagine the design through the perspective of material use, sustainability and manufacturing techniques,” he explained.
A vital consideration of the design research was to investigate the possibility of adding value to a raw material that is sourced locally.
The knives are presented in white sycamore. The whiteness is achieved by early sawing and then standing the freshly sawn stock in a vertical position before the sugars in the sap can create colour in the wood grain.
The handles are presented in Irish oak, which has been selected from radial sawn stock for maximum stability.
“The wood was then fumed with ammonium hydroxide to enrich the colour and heighten the contrast with the white sycamore,” he said.
His project Butter Knives received a commendation in the WAI design and innovation category.
Three minor conifers that grow well in Ireland are Douglas fir, larch (European and Japanese) and the native Scots pine. Donnelly Turpin Architects and Culligan Architects maximised the use of these home-grown species in WAI 2020 projects.
Donnelly Turpin Architects
Donnelly Turpin Architects used all three species in the Glenavy project which received a commendation in the WAI small building category.
A protected building in Dublin and once the home of the artist Beatrice Elvery (Lady Glenavy), the house extension required careful intervention as it is a protected structure.
“The new intervention takes the form of a simple timber box using different timbers,” said John Winslow, project architect. “Six-metre tall vertical charred European larch slats were used externally while internally homegrown Douglas fir was used in exposed floor joists, rafters, wall panelling and joinery.”
Winslow also specified oak flooring as well as ash for bespoke furniture including a magnificent solid ash table which forms the sculptural centre-piece of the new dining space.
In creating a new house as an extension to an existing coach house, Culligan Architects opted for Douglas fir as its core wood while western red cedar was also used.
The house is entered through a timber canopy structure, made from Irish-grown Douglas fir timber which has been stained black.
The living room in the house has an exposed timber roof structure made again from Douglas fir structural beams, joists and tongue and groove decking boards.
Explaining the high use of wood, Tom Culligan said: “The use of timber throughout the project creates a comfortable and warm environment within the house and wood is also a sustainable material with low embodied energy.”
The project was highly commended by the WAI judges.