New Zealand is falling behind the rest of the world in using timber for buildings because it has been slow to embrace the possibilities of new engineered timbers, say the organisers of a wood conference being held in Rotorua.

The key message of tomorrow's conference is that the professions which influence urban landscapes and buildings need to become more astute in the application of new engineered timber (ET) products.

The conference, backed by Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) funding under the Bay of Plenty's Regional Growth plan, has attracted speakers from around the world and is expected to draw 120-plus delegates.

Pip Cheshire, immediate past president New Zealand Institute of Architects, said the industry needed to catch up with the latest trends in wood products.

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"It is well past time that all of us in the industry had an equal understanding of and familiarity with new methods of wood construction in larger buildings, and of the strengths and opportunities offered by the new engineered wood products."

The conference reflects the Wood First policy of Rotorua Lakes Council. The council is so far the only regional body in New Zealand to actively promote timber construction, despite such policies being common overseas.

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick said despite the timber innovation over recent years, the visibility of timber in New Zealand's urban environment was losing ground.

"At Rotorua Lakes we have taken the view that we can ill-afford to watch while the major industries that are associated with forestry and processing are undermined, simply because there is insufficient knowledge and too much conservatism in the marketplace," said Ms Chadwick.

"Both prevent timber innovation from gaining even a reasonable foothold in the construction sector."

Ms Chadwick received the inaugural Wood First Award from the Wood Council of New Zealand last year for her leadership role. Wood First is aimed at providing an incentive for architects and engineers to gain the knowledge, exposure and professional development they need to actually consider designing and engineering with a modern timber vision instead of a traditional concrete and steel mindset, she said.

Ms Chadwick said the wood industry had suffered because it was traditionally fragmented.
"There's no New Zealand wood industry per se," she said. "They're either sawmillers or foresters and manufacturers. It's never been brought together."

We need to debunk the myth that it costs more to build in wood.

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The wood industry needed Government to have a policy that went right through the supply chain and looked at timber as a sustainable, enduring product, and get architects, engineers and design schools involved in using the new engineered timber products, she said.

"We need to debunk the myth that it costs more to build in wood. And I think there is a consensus [across the industry and Government] that we want to see more added value to wood instead of logs going for exports, and to look at the niche engineered timber products."

Francis Pauwels, the chief executive of economic agency Grow Rotorua, said MBIE was backing the conference because Government wanted to see more added value.

"If you look at the cost of building and issues with geotech, seismic, speed of construction and humanity factors, they point to looking at new, better, faster more sustainable ways of building," he said.

"The engineered timbers meet most if not all the requirements. And building doesn't have to be all timber - it can be hybrid, with steel or concrete. These fabulous technologies are here and we really ought to be looking at them a lot more.

"When the expectation of timber design and engineering is disclosed from the outset then it sets a value on the more specialised expertise required. Ideally this will serve as a catalyst for the uptake of engineered timber in commercial settings."

Mr Pauwels said there were a lot of misconceptions around costs, durability, and how to get the most out of the materials.

"As as a country we have a lot of catching up to do, we really need some strong leadership from professional organisations."