Timber to composite – the evolution of building materials

Although timber is a fundamental material in residential and commercial building projects, common issues such as rot, splintering and discolouration can be a concern for housebuilders and developers.

With many now looking for innovative alternatives that have the longevity to wear well, whilst conforming to environmental initiatives such as The Green Guide to Specification, it is an important time for composite manufacturers to prove themselves in an ever-changing industry. Charles Taylor, sales director of wood plastic specialists, Composite Prime, discusses the rise of composite materials, their benefits, and how they can be utilised in residential and commercial builds to save time on joinery requirements.

When it comes to building materials, things are changing. Today we are experiencing a shift, moving the industry towards solutions that provide maximum longevity and sustainability, in line with end-user expectations and new innovations from modern manufacturers. The humble hardwood, for example, has evolved from a staple material used in building projects to a composite alternative, still utilising the important properties that wood holds, but combining it with plastic to offer benefits that surpass the material in its natural form. This presents an exciting opportunity for the industry that has the potential to impact upon how houses are built in the future as well as increasing their lifespan.

In line with the evolution of building materials, we are now seeing composite alternatives replacing general timber products across all outdoor applications including decking, fencing, cladding, sheds, summer houses, garden rooms, bin stores and outdoor furniture. These materials can outperform timber on rotting, maintenance and colour fade, while retaining a likeness to natural timber. This appearance is created not only by using wood within a composite product, but also ensuring it undergoes a rigorous finishing process, to create the appearance of grains and texture upon the product’s surface.

With this in mind, these materials open up real possibilities for the building sector, and have already started to make their mark. Composites have been taking market share across the world for the past 10 years, more recently becoming popular in the UK. One of the reasons for this is the huge part they play in reducing plastic landfill. Quality composite materials will use recycled HDPE plastic, in turn helping to satisfy the green credentials that a lot of architects and specifiers look for when identifying building materials that adhere to the BREEAM assessment used by The Green Guide. The guide offers designers and specifiers advice on how to make the best environmental choices when selecting construction materials. Taking Composite Prime as an example, there is the equivalent of more than 3,000 recycled plastic bottle caps per square metre in its decking, while its wood flour is FSC® 100% certified timber from responsible sources. This shows a commitment to sustainability and sourcing materials that are environmentally friendly; a pledge all manufacturers and suppliers should make to the industry to ensure the forest sector is protected.

Not only do composite products tick the boxes when it comes to being green, they also reduce the need for remedial works to be carried out after installation – and whether a developer is working on a commercial or residential build – avoiding additional labour is always a priority. A composite material can provide that respite, by eliminating the requirement for staining and painting, as well as maintenance issues to reduce rot which can occur naturally when working with timber.

Another notable advantage of composite solutions is consistency. Unfortunately, due to its nature, timber will have knots and the potential to twist and bend, rendering it unfit for purpose. When working with wood there is always an element of waste, but when working with a composite, every piece of the product can be used, resulting in zero wastage. This is obviously favourable for housebuilders and developers when faced with the choice of using traditional timber or a composite material. Not only do they guarantee consistency, they can rest assured follow up work will not be required to remedy naturally occurring issues associated with general wear and tear.

Although there are several benefits that composites provide to housebuilders and developers, how do they measure up when it comes to joinery requirements and fitment times? The answer, very well. Taking decking as an example, a quality composite product can be installed in a very similar way to timber decking, however due to the plastic ingredient the product tends to expand and contract in a slightly different way to natural hardwoods. A quality composite manufacturer or supplier will take extra care to ensure a deck is easy-to-fit and the final result is visually appealing. Composite Prime has developed a secret clip system to fix a deck onto the frame so unsightly screw or nail holes cannot be seen on the surface of the board. The decking also comes complete with comprehensive fitting guides, written with the intention to guide anyone on how to fit a deck easily and to standard. These extra measures are usually taken by a reputable manufacturer with a quality product.

As the construction industry continues to evolve, manufacturers have an important role to play in providing the market with sustainable products that have the qualities required to execute complex building projects. For housebuilders and developers, identifying materials that are easy to fit, hard wearing and attractive is a key priority, to keep customers happy and time spent on a particular job to a minimum. The rise of composites is helping to tackle issues long associated with timber and to provide the longevity expected by today’s savvy consumer. With expectations rising, from both professionals working in the construction industry and the end users, manufacturers need to rise to the challenge of providing innovative products that can truly withstand the test of time.

Charles Taylor is the sales director of Composite Prime and established the company in 2014 alongside director, Domenic Harrison. Combining their expertise in the timber and polymer plastic industries the company creates innovative products for the decking market. For more information visit www.composite-prime.com.