Timber has many positive features: aside from the unique appearance of its grain and warm colours, it can be worked in many ways to fit a multitude of use cases. But there are also many down sides of using wood in construction and finishings.
Most importantly, deforestation globally has decimated once plentiful hardwood trees. These trees grow slowly and demand for the look and feel of timber outstrips forests’ capacity to replace them. The destabilisation of natural hardwood forests is a major contributor to global warming.
Nathan Chapman, co-founder of building materials group Eva-Last, says despite the tensile strength for which it was once prized as a building material, timber is susceptible to environmental and climatic stresses whether wet or dry, including rotting, decay, warping, cracking and splintering.
“Treating timber to maintain its structural and aesthetic performance raises its cost over its useful lifespan by several times – not to mention ensuring that termites, beetles, fungi and other organisms are kept from harming the wood,” says Chapman.
Historically the most devastating drawback of natural timber is its susceptibility to burning. Records of great fires in Alexandria, London, San Francisco and Chicago, among many others, have shown how lives, homes and important buildings have been lost to fires that swept uncontrollably through built-up areas as a result of a reliance on wooden building materials.
In the last two decades the engineering and design of composite building materials, which combine sustainable and recycled materials with fast-growing, easily replenished resources to create materials that are visually indistinguishable from timber, has accelerated significantly.
“With both aesthetic considerations and structural performance driving research and design of these materials, today it is possible to install decking, cladding and structural support devices which look virtually identical to timber but exceed its performance and longevity many times over,” Chapman says.
To draw a comparison with another part of human civilisation that goes back thousands of years – the use of physical money – the development of digital e-commerce and cashless solutions would have seemed unthinkable just two decades ago. Yet, today, it is possible to engage in transactions of any value at lightning speed, safely and without the need to carry a single coin.
In the case of cash, the trends are clear and the benefits of a cashless society indisputably clear. From the costs, risks and effort of handling and carrying cash to the ability to transact anywhere in the world instantly, the days of physical money are numbered.
In the same way, as technology supersedes the performance and aesthetic appeal of wood, there is a clear winner for a number of reasons.
First, the variety of finish and style options in the composite building materials market is astounding. No matter what the design, style or colour scheme of a building or outdoor space, there will be a perfectly suited composite material finish to go with it. Whether modelled on natural timber or deliberately synthetic in its appearance, the choices are endless.
Second, composites outperform natural timber in any environmental situation. Today’s leading composite materials can sustain heavy beatings from tropical coastal zones, hot or cold dry areas or even long, icy winters. Today’s composites can stand up to any environment – wet or dry – for decades and look like they did on the first day.
Composite building materials require practically no maintenance or upkeep at all and feature tensile strength significantly in excess of that of timber. Structural beams with aluminium cores and natural timber finishes have revolutionised what can be done across architectural spans using composite products to maintain a look and feel.
Composite materials are also designed to be durable in typical usage conditions, being resistant to scratching, denting, splitting or even staining. They will also not fade or discolour, even after decades of being exposed to hot, sunny summers. A good composite material will also feature a non-slip finish, making outdoor spaces that much safer in all weather conditions.
Third, composite materials are environmentally friendly. Manufactured using recycled plastics and easily replenished natural materials, composites have no impact on natural hardwood forests and reduce the world’s burden of discarded plastics. “Eva-Last even powers its manufacturing facility with solar power, which means our products have zero environmental impact,” says Chapman.
Fourth, composites are made to be fire-resistant. “Eva-Last’s Apex range has a Class B fire rating, which places it well beyond both timber and other competing composites in terms of its safety performance. While at one time cities sprawled into suburbs and timber construction became somewhat less of a safety concern, the global trend toward urbanisation and densification has meant that fire resistance is once again a key concern in building materials,” Chapman says.
No matter where composite materials are used – indoors or outdoors – the fire-resistant properties of composite materials can bring true peace of mind.
Lastly, composite materials are designed to be quick and easy to install. Their light weight, structural performance and complementary product universe – from fasteners to railings and beams – are designed with efficient and flawless installation in mind. In contrast with timber decks with nails that are exposed and can rust, becoming hazards and causing discoloration, composite decks can achieve flawless finishes using hidden fasteners that are engineered to last as long as the boards without succumbing to the elements.
“Given the superior performance of modern composite materials against natural timber, there really is no reason to stick with wood as a design choice. This is the golden age for building products that do a better job than traditional materials, while having no impact on the environment and being completely sustainable,” Chapman says.