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AHEC – education about wood: designers and producers have to work together

After Perpetual Mobile show in Barcelona, AHEC partners with RIVA 1920 to showcase the work of the new generation of designers encouraging a more responsible use of wood

AHEC x RIVA 1920 – A seat at the table extended deadline 

On occasion of Salone del Mobile Milano 2022 AHEC parters with RIVA 1920; to showcase the work of the new generation of designers, making their voice heard. The call is looking for new table designs to be built in hardwood choosing among Cherry, Maple and Red Oak. After the decision to postpone the fair to later in June, AHEC and RIVA 1920 decided to extend the deadline. Designers can present their works to February 18th, 2022. A seat at the Table is open to all citizens above the age of eighteen; who have a design background and are at the start of their career in the field. The four selected designers will have their work featured in a high profile exhibition at Milano Design Week 2022. They will also see their concepts developed in the artisan labs of RIVA 1920. 

Perpetual Mobile show in Barcelona

Last May 2021 the show Perpetuum Mobile opened in Barcelona. The location was the Disseny Hub promoted by the Fundació Enric Miralles, the Barcelona City Council and the Generalitat Catalunya. The exhibition celebrates the work of Catalan architect Enric Miralles twenty years from his death. Curated by Benedetta Tagliabue and Joan Roig i Duran in collaboration with the Miralles Tagliabue EMBT architecture studio; l’Escola Tècnica Superior d’Arquitectura (ETSAB) and the Collegi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya conveys a less-know side of the architect, as furniture designer. On show are models of furniture designed and realized by Miralles mainly for his home and personal use.

They have been reproduced and displayed thanks to the work of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). All products were made with a selection of sustainable American hardwoods. In the exhibition, just like in Miralles’ life and last Barcelona apartment, movement, image and space intertwine. The designs behind the pieces on show are respectful of the original drawings, with minor adjustments. What has been updated to find new forms and solutions are the material used. The reproductions have been made in under-used American hardwood. Including red oak, maple, cherry and tulipwood; which have been selected based on performance and aesthetics, but above all environmental sustainability. 

In conversation with AHEC director David Venables

Wood is not all the same. as a material, it presents with a large amount of varieties and variables. Not all of them are sustainable. The first thing one has to keep in mind, explains David Venables, director of AHEC, is that wood is not a single material. The most difficult issue is «to inform not just the industry but the wider public»; about a material with such a level of complexity about different woods to different things. An awareness that «has been lacking for generations» of consumers, but most of all of architects and designers. 

Lampoon, Miralles at work
Miralles at work, photography Maro Kouri

Wood: a naturally regenerating resource

A key tool that should be more available to the industry is the Environmental Lifecycle Assessment. «We started from studying how forests in North America were able to reforest themselves naturally». This was possible because «wood is a resource that is naturally regenerating», and renewable. «Forests cannot be sustainable though if we do not think carefully about what and how we grow. Architects and designers can do something that is unsustainable with a resource that is at its base sustainable».

By using a small part of the trees or ignoring underused trees. There is another reason why AHEC implemented a strict Environmental Lifecycle policy. They observed «an amount of greenwashing from those industries; This is to say that they want to position themselves as environmentally better than anyone else. Many of the claims were not based on factual information». Instead, «discovering Environmental Lifecycle Assessment as a science-based method changed everything for us».

Tracking and evaluating the sources of materials

German car-manufacturers companies developed for the most part the thinking behind this method. Aware that they were making products with a high carbon impact; they started researching ways to track and evaluate the sources of their materials in order to minimize the impact of their production. It is all about quantitative data concerning everything associated with a product. «From the sourcing to the production itself; to its linked energy consumption to the outcome». In the case of wood, this means tracking a huge amount of data, starting with what specific forest the trees came from, to how they were processed into raw materials, to the energy and transportation costs. 

If we have at disposal a limited access to materials, this is not true for wood. «Wood is there forever. It doesn’t come from a factory. Nature is making it right in front of us, and it’s doing it continuously». It may sound strange but it is also environmentally useful to cut down trees and use wood: «it has been studied that as trees grow old, they are able to absorb less Carbon Dioxide». In order to protect biodiversity and supply at once, «we pay attention to how we cut them». This way they avoid cutting whole areas at once and instead can select in a careful way the trees to cut. One more asset is that «anything you build with wood is a carbon store», while creating space for newer trees that can store more, creating a virtuous cycle. 

Using wood differently – AHEC research

Collaborating with designers, who «bring a different mindset» to the conversation, Venables came up with the idea that wood use in product design should be «an antithesis to the Ikea model». Research by AHEC found that there is an imbalance among the materials that we use. Given the consumers’ tendency in wanting to buy cheaper products, many unsustainable materials replicating wood have spread. In order to contrast this, the only way is building on the awareness that the original is better, but also getting rid of the belief that products have to be inexpensive.

This is true also among types of wood themselves. «Market and fashion focus on taste», which, Venables comments, «is very ok if that choice doesn’t have any impact», but we have to be conscious that «going forward, every single choice we make has an impact on the environment, and we don’t have hundreds of years to make this right, it’s a matter of decades». A step to the right solution that AHEC adopts is to «try to convince every manufacturer and designer to choose responsibly, not just use one single type of wood because it’s in fashion, and especially use the whole thing that nature gave you» eliminating waste as much as one can.

AHEC encouraging the use of underutilized wood

AHEC is trying to push to the use of underutilized woods. However we have a large availability of and limit the use of woods that are in fashion. For instance the supply chain is under stress. Dark Walnut and Light Oak are the two most used and abused timbers, especially in Europe. Oaks grow in Europe, but they often come from Russia or Ukraine. This is where there isn’t the same legal framework in terms of sourcing and sustainability. This does not mean that, if it comes from Europe it is automatically sustainable.

Chinese are stock processing their oaks because the volume is going down rapidly. The pandemic and all the home renovations it brought about contributed to the increase in demand aggravating the supply stress. Red Oak, on the other hand, was once popular for interiors. Now it’s out of fashion, but it is the one we have more availability of. AHEC is currently developing a research project with Cambridge University. Studying the potential of Red Oak, as a construction material for beams and columns in mass timber buildings. 

Perpetuum Mobile: learning from Miralles work

The work they did in the collaboration for the Miralles exhibition goes in the same direction. Seven of the pieces that were once designed by Miralles are now re-imagined and replicated. This by using a selection of four underutilized American hardwood species providing environmental features, including Cherry and Tulipwood. The philosophy of the architect is in line with the project. He used to design keeping in mind the principle that pieces had to be durable and built respectfully. Material research also was at the center of its practice. Twenty years after his death, Perpetuum Mobile, thanks to the addition made by AHEC. This event can be an opportunity to reflect on the way we choose and use materials; starting from wood and its potential.

Enric Miralles Moya 

The Spanish architect from Barcelona graduated from the Barcelona School of Architecture at the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in 1978. After establishing his reputation with a number of collaborations with his first wife Carme Pinós, the couple separated in 1991.

AHEC

The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) is the leading international trade association for the American hardwood industry. It represents the committed exporters among hardwood companies; who now market and sell their products in significant volumes all around the world. For more than 30 years, AHEC has been at the forefront of international wood promotion; building a distinctive and creative brand for American hardwoods

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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