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Author(s): HAHA
Contributor: Frédéric Bonnet Obras, Collectif AJAP14

A little lesson in applied economics

“Building with beech? It’s a waste of time! What’s the point in wearing yourself out? People would know if beech was in the structure…!”

Nobody was really aware of the passion, debate and litres of sweat which flowed, at the bottom of this small valley in the Vosges at the time of the project developing the local wood sector, initiated by the Chamber of Trade.

Nobody, with the exception perhaps of a handful of individuals who set out to shake up habits, experiment to dispel the uncertainties surrounding beechwood, and challenge the building rules, one hundred years old or more.

To be convincing, it was necessary to build, construct a liveable, innovative and robust ‘showroom’ that was a focal point. Provide proof in a manner of speaking. Such was the objective of Tendon’s building for extracurricular activities. The strangely unexpected but immensely delicate, rigorous and conscious architectural choices enabled the experiment to be transformed. However, this small project which finally considered using beech in the structure was above all a global opportunity to shake up the professional, social and economic mindset of a population and thus provide the means to continue a good life together in this small village in the Vosges.

Redefining the wood sector

Building with wood in the Vosges, like elsewhere, is now quite obvious. For nearly 20 years, ecological awareness and the industrialisation of production have made the material accessible and profitable and part of the building economy of individual housing and public infrastructure. Feedback from past experience has been used to convince, reassure and educate others on the good practices of implementation and the diversity of potential expressions. Timber construction has thus overtaken the chalet architecture market, which maintains its rustic appearance, in favour of structures which promote the intrinsic qualities of the material (notably thermal), to the point of making it sometimes invisible. The lobby is making progress. Assisted by bodies such as the CNDB (National Wood Development Committee), the sector is setting out to conquer towns by now proposing credible solutions for high-rise buildings.

Wood in containers

Observing this more closely, this sector’s strategy poses questions: it seems incapable of combining forestry, wood cutting and wood treatment in the same region. In the Vosges, a department with many forests, it emerges that the large majority of buildings are developed from softwoods from elsewhere, while the spruce is king in the massif. As for beech, considered unsuitable for construction but nevertheless abundant, it crosses the world’s seas, to countries where the labour is less expensive, to return transformed.

As tree species are now clearly allocated; fir trees from Germany in the structure, larch from Siberia in the cladding, beech for furniture, tropical wood for work intended for exterior use…without these practices really be reconsidered.

Meranti for example, a tropical tree species if any, from Asia, is massively used by window manufacturers in France and elsewhere, due to its good resistance to bad weather. Larch or the Douglas fir which grow more locally, and which sell at comparable prices, also have these properties. However habits maintain the economies of scale and well-established markets… or nearly… The Modern Express used to transport wood and construction equipment, between Owendo in Gabon and the port of Envers in Belgium. However in January 2016, the sea was rough and 3600 tonnes of wood came loose in the hold, causing the ship to list. Drifting for several days, it came close to the coastline of the Bay of Biscay necessitating considerable towing resources and endangering the lives of the rescue workers. Rescued just in time, it was towed to the port of Bilbao for long and costly dismantling work.

Firewood

Rarely used in the frame, the Vosges’ timber is however extensively used for chipping, pallet manufacture and firewood. Wood pellets seem to be of particular interest to the sector. Industrial projects for pellet production, supported by public policies, are globally driven by the big energy companies. This view of a high value-added economy in the short term therefore contrasts with the forestry worker’s logic, the value-added of which assumes a long-term view, spanning several generations.

Therefore there is a large gap between French forestry resources, their transformation and their use in the construction sector, yet still fruitful. For example, the sawmills of îles de France have paradoxically disappeared, while this region is heavily forested and has sustained economic growth, notably in the building sector. Beyond the environmental impact, this shortfall has consequences on the human and societal balance of forest regions which are gradually losing the activities around their resources.

What about AOC wood (wood with a registered designation of origin)?

Certain initiatives have however been set up in order to encourage projects making use of local wood.

This is the case of the cooperative sawmill “ambiance bois” on the Faux-la-Montagne plateau (Limousin). The people committed to this sawmill are also those who are the most critical of the methods of exploitation of the Limousin forest resources, among the largest in France, now decimated with little consistency by wood chip manufacturers. What is surprising is this alternative sawmill’s ability to withstand the situation. Positioned on generally local markets, developing for example a timber-frame building activity, the positive balance of which supports the wood cutting business itself, the sawmill has limited the scope of its involvement due to distance: no site which is not accessible from headquarters for a delivery within the day. This cooperative business is now maintaining its activity while other similar businesses, positioned on broader markets have collapsed.

It is also the ambition of the “100 public constructions in local wood” programme of the Fédération Nationale des Communes Forestières (National Federation of Forest Communities), which is encouraging local initiatives to develop local wood and directly addressed elected officials:

“Dear sir or madam,

Whether or not you are, like the mayors of forest communities, owners of forests, solutions exist in order to promote the wood of your massifs in your public building projects. Benefit from the experience of pioneering communities which have embarked on construction with local wood, thanks to support from a national network of elected officials and engineers, and succeed with an innovative and demonstrative project that creates employment.“

What are we talking about? Short supply chains, the development of a local resource, but also social, economic and cultural balance. Ultimately therefore the Vosges landscape, in the broadest sense of the term; forests as far as the eye can see, sawmills alongside rivers, piles of wood outside houses, farms with cladded façades, woodwork construction businesses along the roads, old paper mills in the centres of villages, workers, expertise, a collective memory and now a specialist engineering school in wood construction.

Developing sectors is above all profoundly human. It is believing in ways of living together, and the capacity of a place to continuously adapt and renew itself.

Patience, method and determination

Bringing the stakeholders of the wood sector together

The experience of Tendon perfectly illustrates the desire to establish the wood sector on a regional basis. However, like any conflicting project, the building for extracurricular activities was not built in a day.

The process started in 2008, initiated by the Chamber of Trade of the Vosges department directed towards tradespeople of the local wood sector. As the purpose was “timber building materials and systems, collaborative projects for the primary and secondary processing of wood”, the intention was to bring together sawyers and builders. The initial objective was to set up a monitoring unit capable of defining and managing the project, and then supporting the various stakeholders throughout the entire experience through the establishment of the CETIFAB (Centre des Techniques et Innovations de la Filière Artisanale Bois).

More specifically, it involved the integration of local sawmills in the timber construction loop by maintaining their place in the rural economy and the transformation of the local resource.

The ONF (Office National des Forêts (National Forests Office)) was also involved from the early stages in order to provide its thorough knowledge of the area, tree species and available scales. Its employees played a prominent role at the time of selecting trees, and of logging and hauling operations.

The monitoring unit wanted to register the project as part of a public contract and specifically as part of the construction of an ERP (public establishment). A private or associative project would certainly have facilitated the administrative arrangements and normative constraints, but it was important for all of the stakeholders to prove the viability of the process as part of a voluntarily rigorous and normative framework, so that it could be reproduced. To ensure this, CRITT bois (Centre Régional d’Innovation et de Transferts Technologique de l’Industrie du bois) became a partner of the operation. Its aim was to assist, justify and validate the innovative technical mechanisms with the technical controller. In particular it had to double its professional insurance costs in order to be able to cover the project.

A call for projects was thus published by the association of Vosges mayors, 12 proposals were presented and the commune of Tendon was selected for a small project involving the expansion of an extracurricular activities centre (a priori by enlarging the school’s covered playground) and a covered market in the very heart of the village.

The commune of Tendon has 500 inhabitants and as many hectares of forest. Communal logging operations were furthermore the main source of income of this community. This matter was taken seriously. It decided to manage the felling and wood cutting and involve a local stakeholder, the Vicente sawmill, a specialist in hardwood. Included in the preparatory meetings, the sawyer provided valuable field expertise complementing the employees of the ONF.

The last key actor of this experiment was the architect recruited at the end of 2009, following the public call for tenders. The Haha agency stood out due to its extensive experience working with wood and its motives. In addition, the architect Claude Valentin, founder of the agency, turned out to be from Tendon (his grandfather was a farmer there) and his offices were only a few kilometres from the village. The close proximity ensured a thorough knowledge of the political, economic and cultural context on a day-to-day basis, which in the case of the Tendon project was an important asset.

Developing a method

The team was complete, several avenues emerged as discussions progressed which included local sawyers and carpenters. Some, notably the sawyers, started to mention the possibility of using hardwood in the structure. The question of shortwood was also repeatedly raised as it enabled a profit to be made on the sawmill residues or resources of poor quality.

Throughout the study phases and the proposals of the Haha agency, many lines of thought were mentioned concerning various tree species (oak, birch, beech, pine, Douglas fir, etc.) and related building systems (trussed beams, large parts in round timber, traditional trusses, etc.).

Finally it was in the APD phase (final design plan) that the decisions were made. Beechwood, very much present in Tendon, would be the resource and would be used in the form of a box structure for the construction of the walls and roof. They were to be insulated with straw. The interior facings were to be small strips of solid beech and the exterior facings of larch singles.

Everything was therefore agreed as regards these efforts to develop the commune’s beechwood into timber. A way of expanding this abandoned species through industrial enterprise: peeling, papermaking, heating.

It also involved demonstrating the possibility of building with shortwood, produced by these traditional sawmills, without lengthening joints or gluing, but with assemblies using screws and nails. The main technique of the structure boxes was in the construction of reconstituted beams from small strips of beech, juxtaposed and tightened between two OSB panels in order to reconstitute longer lengths.

Would beech therefore become a local resource to be urgently developed? A deposit?

It did not take long for the team to come up against the first signs of persistent scepticism and criticism. And with reason: beechwood had never been used in structures. Its mechanical properties are clearly intended for furniture (small sections, small lengths, reactive) and the majority of wood construction specialists were sceptical about its use in the structure. In addition, the architectural choices didn’t settle anything.

The vision of the architect was the determining factor in the Tendon experience. When he responded to the call for tenders, Claude Valentin already knew his subject perfectly well. He had built several buildings with timber structures, such as the Damassine project, a house in orchards with a sustainable eco-construction, inspired by the traditional farmsteads of the Montbéliard area. He knew that it was necessary to exceed the requirements of the technical specifications in order to satisfy the specialists but also and above all the overall architectural component in order to ensure the project would be accepted by the users.

Facilities for the village

For Tendon, it involved above all redefining the heart of the village and the architect immediately grasped the urban dimension of the request. This project “heart of Tendon” was to bring together three essential functions: religious (the church), political (the town hall) and finally secular (school and extracurricular activities).

The building was constructed in a bend on this village’s main road, in a topographic line of the Vosges relief, giving the building a special linking role. In the plan view first of all, as it reinforced the existing natural movement at this point in the village, and also in the section view, due to its construction below the road and the choice of a building on three levels, volume was created and a link established between the different elevations present.

The project thus showed an initial volumetric uniqueness.

Innovation and tradition

The technical innovation seemed potentially rich: it led to new forms, new materials and new uses. The architect’s approach was light-hearted and largely exceeded the programme.

Claude Valentin had decided upon non-standard architecture in order to prevent responses from companies that were too industrialised. The new extracurricular activities building thus has a “hybrid” form. It is a surprising wooden polyhedra and yet sized according to the various contextual elements and notably the views on offer. In addition, this compact and vertical volume enabled a reduction in costs and optimal thermal performance.

However, building in beech was not sufficient, the ideas started flowing and the project was gaining individuality; insulating with bales of straw and in this way involving the agriculture sector, heating with a simple log stove radiating heat from a central position. The partitions, ceilings, interior panels, cladding and roofs were wooden, nothing but wood; to eliminate the use of plasterboard on the building site. It was a difficult challenge.

The architect revisited the archetype of the “cabin”; it brought back shared emotions of childhood. Its space, materials and lights that were set aside in the past or kept for a few stolen weeks in the summer, he took and implemented them, with no complications, in this everyday facility for children.

The dual culture of the architects proved to be convincing: a thorough knowledge of sophisticated operating procedures of the latest technical innovations (foundation on expanded glass granulate, steam brake, variable hygro and double flow CMV) and the use of ancestral and local building know-how (shingle, bales of straw, battens, etc.).

Alchemy was born from the transversality of questions asked: developing new building processes and ensuring that the materials and work implemented were demonstrative, clear and woven into the environment.

Beechwood, straw, wooden partitions, a log burner for a facility intended for children… the project exceeded simple technical innovation. The terrain was conducive, exceptional, the opportunity was rare. The Tendon project became a game, which left the architects accustomed to public buildings astonished, where these practices are often discarded as they are perceived as too risky.

The project was built. The first children were brought in there, as if nothing had happened.

Attracting interest

The experience in Tendon had successfully worked demonstrating the expertise of local businesses and some potential for beechwood. It is furthermore being standardised. A preliminary study conducted by the FCBA (French technology institute of forestry, cellulose, wood construction and furniture) was used to establish the characteristics of beechwood in construction according to use classes, essential for developing valuable ‘approval certificates’ which ensure its conditions of use.

From a building point of view, the extracurricular activities building in Tendon enabled the development of a box girder principle made up of beech strips tightened between two OSB panels. It may be possible to reproduce this solution in certain specific cases, but let us be clear, it is not a revolutionary process destined for industrialisation. However, the experience illustrates a particular attitude vis à vis building traditions. It is not about recovering or readjusting a sector, a past technique, but really about inventing a new material: understanding how to bring a raw material together with a specific implementation strategy.

Is this therefore an isolated experience? A spectacular operation with no follow-up?

A priori no, as the first aim was to transfer a methodology. The main contractors, client, sawmills, builders but also and above all the inhabitants of Tendon were engaged. Each developed its expertise and reinforced its commitment. In addition, the excellent communication surrounding this small project (notably winner of the national prize for timber construction in 2013) largely contributed to disseminating this methodology and helped to dispel doubts.

Men have defined through history specific uses for each variety of wood. It was therefore necessary to remove doubts by comparing different cultures. When felling the trees, the ONF employee was very positive while examining the trunks cut down and the wood quality. He said “with that you could build cathedrals”. Mr Vicente, a local sawyer and specialist in hardwood was, to the contrary, much more sceptical: “There is nothing you can do with that… “ he insisted, finally convinced and concluding with humour “I still blasted the strips with your trunks bombarded in the last war!”.

The case of wood is a contextual example. This type of experimentation undertaken exists in France, disseminated throughout the country and concerns a multitude of other materials and implementing techniques. Some, like in Tendon, are part of very organised processes, involving a multitude of relevant actors, while others are set up spontaneously.

French architecture schools believe in the educational virtues of experimentation. AMACO (atelier matière à construire) which groups together the large workshops of Isle d’Abeau, and the schools of Lyon and Grenoble sets its research between observation of the correct vernacular direction, the use of available materials and the handling of materials. Architecture students are thus brought to touch, weigh and assemble the stones, fold, bend and pin the wood in order to better understand the qualities and limits of the materials.

The architects are also engaged. The use of quarry stone for example, in the works of Gilles Perraudin for the cut stone and Hervé Beaudouin for stone concrete, proposes to restore a link between construction and the materials available on site, by developing a specific aesthetic and by considering the creativity of the craftsman as decisive.

The recent National Strategy for Architecture, directed by the Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin, wished to create a ‘permit to do’, which for certain architecture projects proposes to relax regulations. A ‘favourable ecosystem’ according to Marc Barani, manager of the project group, which enables architecture to remain a discipline full of innovation.

Industry is finally committing to a comparable approach. In Germany, they are taking these new sectors very seriously. The family business Pollmeier develops building products in very high quality beechwood and its ambitions – 100 million euros invested over the last few years in a tool for the manufacture of veneered panels – speak volumes about the optimism of the company and its ability to innovate.

In France, the experience of Lineazen, which develops high performance timber building products, is remarkable. In January 2016, the company obtained an approval certificate for a product used to build high-rise wooden buildings. This experience is all the more interesting as the factory is based in Moselle, not far from the Vosges forests. This land, previously of the steel industry, now lives in large part from the thousands of jobs generated by the financial strength of neighbouring Luxembourg. Could high-rise buildings sustainably replace blast furnaces? Nothing could be less certain, since the recent announcement of the removal of banking secrecy in Luxembourg which could transform these bank headquarters into houses of cards.

It is therefore an economy with high value-added, associated with local and societal development which the regions need in order to get a glimpse of an economic and social dynamic in the long term.

During this time, the village of Tendon has acquired a facility which contributes to the well-being of the rural environment. The project was recently completed, as an extension to the action undertaken, with a multi-purpose covered market in stacked wood, the Japanese way. It now provides a place for the market, but also a playground for schoolchildren and an open-air cinema in the summer months. These are the tangible qualities of this little lesson in applied economics.

Architect
- HAHA
Client
- Commune de Tendon
Function
- Accueil périscolaire et halle polyvalente
Location
- Tendon
Completion
- 2012
Area
- 380 m²
Cost
- 0.48 M € (accueil périscolaire)