Avoiding destruction in your construction

This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

This 8km, 15 year old road in East Kalimantan is due to be shipped off to Bali and replaced with new illegal Ulin wood

In today’s ever-globalising world, it is hard for the discerning consumer to know where the wood they buy comes from. How do we get reliable information the wood’s origins, particularly when production is increasingly less localised and further away from the point of sale?

It is not easy, but it is possible.

The current laws for both new and reclaimed wood are, quite frankly, not that great and wide open to loopholes, as a recent trip to Kalimantan showed me. Exploiting a 2008 regulation from the Ministry of Forestry on inter-island trading of Ulin (Kalimantan Ironwood), I met with traders who were busy setting up deals with communities to replace their 15 year-old Ulin roads and bridges with new Ulin, only to sell the old stuff to the Bali reclaimed wood market! The old wood was pulled up as the new stuff was being simultaneously laid down. As one trader said, ‘We can’t send it out of Kalimantan, but we can replace the old wood with new and send that out instead!’

Much of this imported reclaimed wood ends up in the yards of reclaimed wood wholesalers in Denpasar, who supply raw material to many projects and retailers on Bali.

What concerns me is the possibility that the demand for reclaimed wood in Bali and elsewhere is actually fueling greater destruction of the forests, instead of the reverse. We got into the reclaimed wood trade because we saw it as a way to re-use an old and valuable material, thus reducing demand on the need for new wood. The average punter we meet generally buys recycled timber in an effort to help the planet.

The government was obviously concerned to when in mid 2007 in an effort to ward off the extinction of Ulin, it froze all harvesting and trade of the species and instigated an island-wide inventory of remaining stands in natural forest. The moratorium on the harvesting and trade of Ulin lasted until mid-2008, when it was replaced by a new law that limited export of Ulin only to a handful of Kalimantan-based timber companies who had existing stocks of Ulin in their forest concessions.

Current regulations require that Ulin traders obtain an endorsement from the BRIK (Forest Industry Revitalisation Agency) and a permit (PROKALINDO) to export Ulin out of Kalimantan. Only a handful of companies currently hold this permit. This has made it very difficult for new Ulin traders to find export markets for their wood.

Reclaimed wood exports require all sorts of permit processes of their own, including site inspection by the forestry department, police and forestry permits and so on. But generally speaking, it is relatively simple for the trained eye to differentiate new wood from recycled.

The big issue is of course sustainability. It was unsustainable and rampant exploitation that led the government to implement a law to restrict Ulin trading in the first place. Ulin has a 50 year in ground rating, which means we can expect a heartwood post to last 50 years, or more if it above ground. Growing at around half a centimetre a year, a 5 x 20 board would be cut from a tree that is at least 40 years old. Roughly speaking, a sustainable cutting cycle for Ulin would need to be at least 50 years. We are all for wood being used by local communities for appropriate applications. But what will this community do when in another 15 years when the roads need replacing again and there is no wood left?

So here are the three things you need to make sure your wood is legitimate reclaimed wood:

  1. Ensure your supplier can provide evidence of the original structure the wood came from and its location (photographs or documentation)
  2. Ensure that the original structure was not replaced with new wood when it was demolished
  3. Only buy from trusted suppliers that can comprehensively and satisfactorily respond to your queries

A clever little bamboo toilet roll

I saw this clever little bamboo toilet roll while lunching in Ubud the other day and it got me thinking. The standard material for toilet roll holders is metal. If we take the toilet roll holders in my house, all four of them are made from steel. I did some research and it turns out that steel as a material utilises 16 times more energy by mass than wood, or in this case bamboo. You see the ‘embodied energy’ of steel and other metals, or the total energy expended to procure and transport the material, manufacture it into products and then maintain and repair them during their lifespan is very high. Kiln-dried hardwood is far lower by comparison.

Embodied energy is measured as a quantity of non-renewable energy per unit of building material, either by mass or volume. The science is a tad imprecise, but it stands as a basic launching pad to start looking at the materials we use and what their real ‘cost’ is, from cradle to grave.

I pondered how much energy could be saved in my own house if I replaced the metal I used with wood every time. Instead of steel towel racks, I could use reclaimed wood. Out go the steel soap racks, bring in the wood! Then I started thinking about how much the world save if we all starting using lower embodied energy materials.

I was chatting with my mate Dave the other day about using bamboo blinds as a weather barrier in the home to help prevent rain and wind from entering, as it tends to do in the tropics. He suggested I put up a bamboo privacy blind between the two houses on our property to create a visual privacy barrier. I was saying that I was reticent to as it gets mouldy and has to be maintained. Yep, says Dave, it gets mouldy because it is an organic material, and the beauty about organic materials is you can replace them relatively cheaply and they will decay and return to the earth. Bamboo is cheap because it is a fast growing material, its production costs are low, and it is easily renewed. Compare that to plastic sheet roofing, also a relatively cheap material to buy, but its downside is it’s made from fossil fuels and hence has a high embodied energy, and in the harsh tropic environment, it ends up on landfill after 5 or so years and is still there in another thousand years.

I saw a termite and rot-ridden solid Merbau deck the other day that was two years old that the owner had decided to replace with - get this - Merbau! Cost considerations had been the major determining factor as it is around 30-50% cheaper than reclaimed Ulin. But imagine having to replace your deck every two years… Ulin has a Class 1 durability rating, meaning its probable in-ground life expectancy is +25 years. By comparison, Merbau has a Class 3 in-ground durability rating giving it a 5-15 year probable life-span. Choosing a timber that has a higher up-front cost but lasts 10 times as long makes better economic sense at the end of the day. What about if we apply my above argument that Merbau is an organic product that will degrade over time, hence it doesn’t matter if we replace it? True, but this timber species has a high environmental cost because at present it is being solely harvested from natural forests in West Papua and PNG. Again it got me thinking, no point using timber if used in an application that the species is not designed for, if it is not installed correctly, or if it costs the earth. It may seem cheap, but how much does it really cost?

So the choice of material in your building project is both about the energy used to produce the end product, the relative life span you will get from it, the way you install it, and the local environmental impact its extraction has at the point of origin.

Imagine if all products came with a rating system that informed consumers on these factors. That is just what the Rainforest Foundation decided to do in Norway recently when they tackled the issue of deforestation due to the oil palm industry. They worked with major food producers to generate a web-based tool to inform consumers on the use of palm oil in their products. Due to extensive media coverage, this resulted in a 64% decrease in palm oil use in Norway over a year. Wow!

In the meantime product rating is not widespread in Indonesia, so it is up to us as consumers to do our research. Looking at embodied energy in building materials is a start, and using recycled products wherever possible is an excellent alternative.

Love to hear your thoughts and experiences below.

Till next time!

Quoting Alex Ryan, Kaltimber Founder

One of the reasons we deplete our resources so quickly is because we don’t design in a clever way. If we can put longevity into the design phase, I believe there will always be a market for reusing, reclaiming and designing around the material’s original state. I know that is not always possible, but it is what I am trying to promote.
— Alex Ryan, Kaltimber Founder