Timber News, the magazine for SCA's solid wood products customers, explores the growing market for Swedish timber in China in its latest issue.
Swedish exports of sawn solid-wood products to China are on the increase. Furniture and furnishings made from wood are winning ground and there is growing interest in using wood as a building material.
”But the use of wood is nothing new,” says Shanghai-based professor Liu Jie. However, the fast development of the country has so far rested on a foundation of steel and concrete.
Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranks as one of the five top universities in China. It is also one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious educational establishments. Professor Liu Jie works at the School of Architecture.
He has dedicated a large proportion of his research to studying ancient Chinese building technology, resulting in the publication of a number of books and theses.
”We always used to live in timber houses,” he says. ”They were easy to build and had a comfortable indoor climate. Even our temples were always built from timber.”
But when people in China turned their eyes to the west a century ago, they saw that many countries had started to use steel and concrete in their buildings. These materials allowed buildings to be erected on a grander scale, more quickly and to a greater height, a fact which proved to be very popular in China. The search for new building materials after 1949 was particularly pronounced.
In Shanghai, great swathes of the city’s old quarter were pulled down and replaced by new, magnificent buildings made from concrete.
And it has continued like this ever since. Timber has increasingly found itself in the shadow of other, cheaper building materials. What compounded this even more was that, after 1949, it became difficult to to get permits to fell forests, and access to domestic timber reduced dramatically. Following the flooding of the Yangtze River in 1998, a ban on all felling was introduced in south-western China.
“This has resulted in the almost complete disappearance from China of any experience and knowledge of felling and timber construction,” claims Professor Jie.
But as insight into the environmental benefits of timber has increased, courses in timber technology and modern timber construction have started to be run in many places throughout the country. And the import figures for sawn solid-wood products to China confirm that more and more people are becoming interested. In late 2013, around 2.2 million cubic metres of sawmill products were imported into China every month.
“If we’re going to use more timber we have to realise that we shall be completely dependent on imports,” explains Jie. But imports from which countries depends on who you ask. By and large, Chinese have a preference for tropical tree species in their furnishings and furniture.
In spite of this, the proportion of Swedish wood in China is increasing, even if the figures are still modest compared to countries such as Russia and Canada. Volumes have tripled since 2012, last year amounting to around 400,000 cubic metres.
But it could be much more. The Chinese are showing an increasing interest in wood as a renewable building material. They also want to take advantage of Swedish know-how and approaches to timber in architecture and building systems that use wood.
Working on behalf of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and supported by the Swedish Forest Industries Federation and the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth, Aix Arkitekter of Stockholm has produced plans for an 80,000 square metre international campus with multi-floor buildings made from timber.
The plans are based on a system of flat pack modules, which can be easily transported in containers and combined with low energy technology. If the project is implemented, it will be the first time a multi-floor building has been built in China using European timber building technology.
“A pilot project is required in order to demonstrate to the authorities that the strict regulations need to be relaxed,” explains Professor Jie, who has himself designed many large timber structures in which modern building technology has been combined with traditional Chinese design.
For several years now, European Wood, the organisation that represents the European sawmill industry, has worked on issues concerning building standards and systems for multiple occupancy dwellings made from timber in China. But there remains a lot of work do before the first layer of turf is removed from the site of the university campus in Shanghai.
Until then, Swedish Wood, which, along with other timber industry organisations throughout Europe, is a member of European Wood, will continue its work to facilitate the export of Swedish timber to China. It will do this by attending conferences, staging workshops and establishing contacts with authorities and organisations.
“The potential for Swedish timber in China is enormous, thanks in no small part to its even quality and the attractiveness of forestry practices that are sustainable in the long term,” says Jan Söderlind of Swedish Wood.