Wood: an Essay by Alex de Rijke
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Wood, a bad material

Wood: an Essay by Alex de Rijke
By Alex de Rijke -

Wood is a very poor material to use if you are seeking to pollute the planet; probably the worst choice you could make as an architect, engineer or designer. If you are looking to permanently release yet more carbon into the ozone layer, choose another material and thereby promote its manufacture. Wood is hopeless at producing toxins and carbon.
Wood is a last resort for those wishing to specify a heavy material. If you want additional structural dead loads, you will have to look to almost any other material. Its nearest rivals are way heavier - wood is hopelessly lightweight, especially given its high strength. Choose another material if you need bigger foundations and you want to employ more machinery and people lifting on site.
Wood, when big or thick enough, is bad in a fire. People expecting wooden buildings to immediately burn down are often surprised and sometimes disappointed when they don’t. The wood is predictable in its burn rate, and protects its inner structure by outer charring, giving people time to escape safely. It can even be self-extinguishing. This can frustrate sensationalist news media seeking building disasters involving toxic fumes and sudden collapses.
Wood in the form of engineered construction timber is bad at living up to the slow building processes preferred by the construction industry. Offsite manufactured precision really is the enemy of delays on site. If you need a slow build with inevitable delays and resultant disputes, avoid wood at all costs.
Wood in buildings is notoriously smelly. It’s natural tendency to produce pleasant oxygenated natural aromas can irritate those who prefer the damp cloying odour of wet trades combined with dust and chemical adhesives. This applies to initial construction as well as later alterations; wood is readily altered on site if necessary and does not share its rivals advantages of being inflexible to change. If you need to cut out another window later, be prepared for easy work, the smell of sawdust and fresh air.
Wood does not need covering internally. This is bad news for buildings designed to incorporate a lot of layers and many subsequent trades, all of whom need interface coordination and quality control. In a timber building there are far fewer trades to blame each other, which can make contract litigation less lucrative.
Wood is extremely poor at offering surfaces that are inherently cold and unattractive to look at and touch. And the structure can also be the finish. This is a distinct disadvantage for cladding companies, plasterers and painters. The infinite choice of colour, grain and texture inherent to global tree species and timber products makes specification a minefield of possibility.
Wood is low on the performance index of stress inducing materials. If your building needs to increase the heart rate of its occupants and decrease the effectiveness of the Vegus nerve that protects the heart from attack, choose a regular alternative to wood. Austrian ‘Schools without Stress’ research studies document how much better other materials are at provoking or inducing respiratory and allergenic problems. So if you need an unhealthy building material, don’t use wood.
Wood is at the back of the queue when it comes to being a finite resource. Trees are naturally regenerative and replenish themselves continually throughout their lifetime; even in death trees continue to positively contribute to the living world. If your project has to be made from limited materials that need to be laboriously manufactured instead of just grown naturally, with the consequences of dangerous side effects and climate change, look elsewhere. Wood cannot match that. Wood should never be trusted as it has ‘a mind of its own’. It’s quest for infinite variation in growing and adapting to changing environmental circumstances is bad news for those seeking absolute consistency.
Wood changes and is dedicated to finding ways to never exactly repeat its composition, grain and colour; it would rather express the variety of life and passage of time. Wood should be avoided by people who never get bored of endless sterile repetition, and want everything to be somehow ‘timeless’.

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