Marine builders asked to switch wood for the greater good

We all know about overfishing and how stocks of the species which traditionally find themselves on our plates are plummeting while their equally-edible cousins remain unscathed. The same is happening when it comes to our choice of timber.

As things stand, the marine and freshwater construction industries tend to rely on the proven track record of a limited number of tried and tested hardwoods such as Greenheart, Ekki and Opepe.

But this puts pressure on existing supplies and particularly on slow-growing species.

With this in mind, the Environment Agency has teamed up with consultants from HR Wallingford and TRADA Technology to research the potential to increase the use of equally effective but lesser known hardwoods.

The first phase of the research will see a lengthy list of timber types tested in a Portuguese lagoon to see if they can withstand the elements – and the attentions of a variety of timber-eating mollusks and crustaceans.

The five best-performing woods from this first set of trials will then be tested against British Standards to assess their strength and durability.

They will also be tested in the field where they will be used in projects to build lock gates, beach groins and other structures which are regularly exposed to water.

Jonathan Simm of HR Wallingford, said: “Designing and constructing structures for coasts and rivers with materials such as timber is a real challenge. Risks associated with construction in this changing environment and rates of deterioration in performance during service life are important.

“It is one of the reasons why engineers will tend not to use lesser-known timbers unless they have a well-documented service-life record.

“This research programme commissioned by the Environment Agency addresses this issue head on using a combination of laboratory trials and full-scale strength testing. The outcomes will allow selected lesser-known timbers to be used confidently in coastal and river structures.”

Mark Yeomans, head of procurement at the Environment Agency, said: “In the past construction professionals have been limited in their choices due to a lack of information and the cost of finding out more.

“Together with our project partners we are thoroughly testing a range of lesser known hardwoods that may be suitable alternatives to more popular species which could become scarce if over exploited.

“This means looking at the wide ranging factors that affect performance, such as engineering properties and abrasion resistance – for example the effects of pebble and tide action on the timber.

“The findings of this work will influence our own structures such as flood defences, helping us find better ways of working and do more for the environment.”

Sam Bond

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