Roderick Wiles, AHEC Director for Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Oceania explores how American Hardwoods can be a major contributor to sustainable design in the hospitality industry.
Among his many other achievements, celebrated American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for saying: “Wood is the most humanly intimate of all materials. The man loves his association with it, likes to feel it under his hand, sympathetic to his touch and to his eye. Wood is universally beautiful to man.” This is difficult to dispute and there is no doubt that a space with wood in it, whether it is used in the wall panelling, flooring, furniture or all three, is simply a better place to be.
Despite this, wood frequently loses out to alternative materials because it is often little understood and designers are afraid to specify it. However, a little bit of research will go a long way and, in many applications, using wood will often prove to be the better and, more environmentally beneficial, solution.
In recent years, the hospitality industry has begun to ‘green up’ operations, but the question remains as to whether it is simply a matter of leaving out little cards to encourage guests to reuse their towels and linens. Some hotels take sustainability more seriously than others, but the reality is that the industry as a whole has certainly become greener in recent years. As consumers become more environmentally aware about the choices they make, so are hoteliers responding by creating eco-friendly interiors in the hope of attracting a new generation of responsible and eco-aware guests.
In embracing sustainability, designers are not simply responding to a new fashion. Nor are they only seeking to minimize the direct impact of their own creations on the environment. They are promoting desirable visions that compel people to want to live sustainably. And, by doing so, designers are becoming a key part of the process to move towards a more sustainable future. The choice of materials then is a key component of sustainable design.
As well as meeting customer demand, the move to low-impact interiors reflects hoteliers’ desire to cut operating costs, create healthy and productive places to stay and work, and pass rigorous standards in order to achieve accreditation from one of the internationally recognised ‘green building’ certification schemes. Timber plays a major role in helping designers achieve their sustainability benchmarks. However, before specifying timber, they should actively seek to improve their knowledge of the material. This is key, so as to ensure the correct specification, expected performance and, thereafter, to provide positive inspiration for other designers.
A key question is whether or not wood can be considered to be a sound choice on environmental grounds. Well, in fact, provided it derives from a sustainably managed forest, timber is, arguably, the most environmentally-friendly material available. In the case of American hardwoods, it has a very low (often negative) carbon footprint, it is abundant, it is renewable, its harvesting and processing do not use or produce harmful chemicals or by-products and it has low embodied energy. The same cannot be said for almost any other material, even factoring in transport to the Middle East.
American hardwoods have many strong technical qualities, often out-performing competing materials. Given its high strength to weight ratio, lightweight timber members can provide the same structural strength as much heavier alternatives. Wood also has very low thermal conductivity compared to many other building materials. This means that it can act as a superior barrier to both heat and cold, resulting in both lower insulation and energy requirements for a building, such as lower carbon emissions and lower running costs. In addition, it has excellent acoustic properties and it can also provide health benefits over alternative flooring materials.
Contrary to perceived wisdom, wood also boasts natural fire resistance. The keyword for timber’s behaviour in fire is predictability. Although it burns, this occurs at a predictable speed known as the charring rate. The thermal insulation properties of timber are such that the wood just a few millimetres inside the burning zone is only warm. This is in contrast to high thermal conductivity materials such as steel, which heat up more uniformly giving rise to problems of expansion and loss of strength over the whole section.
Leading architects and designers, as well as contractors and manufacturers of flooring and furniture in the region have developed a strong appreciation of the potential offered by American hardwoods, which signify further growth prospects for the product in the region. By using American hardwoods, designers are assured that they are minimizing their impact on the environment throughout all the stages of the product lifecycle, from extraction, through processing, use, reuse and final disposal.
At the same time, through their choice of particular species and grades of American hardwoods, designers have a central to play to reduce waste and maximize utilisation of this valuable natural resource.
Images: Sofitel, Palm Jumeirah