Gulf contractors are likely to import larger volumes of American hardwood in the future following a worldwide renaissance in terms of acceptance of wood as material for design and construction, an official of the organisation propagating use of US hardwoods says.
Roderick Wiles, director of the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) for Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Oceania, says that scenario is expected since the Gulf does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. “The GCC’s architects and interior designers, many of whom originate from Europe, North America and Australia, are influenced by worldwide trends and we believe that this will lead to increased use of wood in the Gulf as a result,” says Wiles, adding that wood is also beginning to be better understood as a sustainable or ‘green’ material – an increasingly important factor in material specification in the Gulf, especially considering the introduction of green building rating systems.
As wood gains greater acceptance, so would US hardwoods, he says. “Over the next three to four years, we believe that demand for US hardwoods in the GCC area will increase considerably, as the number of construction projects gathers momentum once again. The number of opportunities for the specification of American hardwoods in the Gulf will also increase massively in the coming years, especially considering Dubai’s successful bid to host the World Expo in 2020 and we intend to increase our promotion and education activities with this in mind.”
The main American hardwood product exported is lumber (sawn timber) and in 2013, shipments to the GCC reached a total volume of 25,996 cu m, worth $20.62 million. This marked a decrease of 16 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively on the previous year, but this was almost totally accounted for by a fairly significant decline in shipments to the UAE, which fell to 10,599 cu m. But Wiles cautioned that the decline, however, should not mean to signal the start of a new trend, saying it was more than likely due to overstocking in the previous year, as well as to the fact that many of the new construction projects were only in their early stages, where the interior wood specification had not yet been made.
Shipments of US hardwood lumber to Saudi Arabia, which totalled 11,074 cu m, remained unchanged from the previous year. It is worth noting that the volume of US hardwood lumber shipped to the Middle East and North Africa region as a whole actually doubled between 2008 and 2013.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the main markets for US hardwood lumber last year and this has been the case for many years. The volume of shipments to Saudi Arabia in 2013 accounted for 43 per cent of total exports to the GCC, while the UAE’s imports of American hardwood lumber accounted for 41 per cent. It must also be considered, however, that up to a third of the US hardwood lumber shipped to the UAE may actually be destined for other markets, including Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as non-GCC countries.
SPECIES IN VOGUE
Over the past 20 years or more, the most widely used American hardwood species in the GCC has been red oak. Until about 10 years ago, it accounted for around three quarters of all US hardwood lumber shipped to the region. Since then, other American species have become better known and more widely used, such as ash, walnut and white oak. Red oak became a very commonly used species for doors and door frames and, while many other US species are equally suited to this application, its grain pattern, colour and ability to take stain lent itself well to the prevailing fashion. In addition, red oak is the most widely available of the US hardwood species and this has meant that GCC buyers are not competing for supply with other buyers in other regions. American cherry was also very widely used in the Gulf for many years, with iconic projects, such as the Burj Al Arab, Emirates Towers Hotel and Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai, featuring it extensively. However fashions change and cherry is less in demand today.
Should Gulf companies be looking at other species as well, species that are suitable to the region’s environment and to aesthetic and functional needs? “Absolutely,” says Wiles. “We feel that companies in the Gulf should explore the full range of commercially produced American hardwoods, especially those with strong aesthetic and/or working properties. We understand that demand for hardwood species is often most influenced by fashion and that we have little control over this, but we also like to see the American hardwood resource being used to its full and best potential. As previously mentioned, American cherry was very fashionable around the world 10 to 15 years ago, but it is much less so now and this is a shame, as it is a warm, beautiful hardwood, with excellent working and finishing properties.
“One species which is enjoying new interest in the GCC and worldwide is American tulipwood, which is unique to America and which has enormous potential in a very wide range of applications, including in structural use as cross-laminated timber (CLT).”
Gulf contractors have many US sources to import their hardwood from but Wiles believes that the US firms that have possibly enjoyed the most success are those who have consistently and directly marketed their products in the region and, most often, on a face-to-face basis. Many of these have also made use of the annual Dubai WoodShow as a platform to showcase their products.
AHEC’s role is not to sell American hardwoods but just to promote them on a generic basis. This is achieved through many avenues, such as educational seminars for traders, manufacturers and designers, networking with GCC buyers and end users, trade shows, public relations and advertising. The key points it puts forward throughout its educational and marketing strategy are sustainability, consistency in availability, quality and grade, carbon negativity and, last but not least, the fact that the US hardwood resource offers such a wide range colours, grains and textures which are suitable for such a variety of applications.
American hardwoods are extremely well suited to a very wide range of interior applications, be they in private residences, large public buildings, commercial offices or retail spaces. Furniture, flooring, doors and joinery are all ideal end uses for US hardwood species, while in certain limited applications, they can also be used outside or even structurally. In the harsh climate of the GCC, however, AHEC would hesitate to recommend using any of the American species externally unless they had undergone some sort of treatment or modification for exterior use. Thermal modification is one method used for making a number of the American species, including ash, tulipwood, soft maple and red oak, ideal for external application, while other very good proprietary processes, such as acetylation, also exist.
LACK OF KNOWLEDGE
Considering that American hardwood species are well suited for many interior applications, what has prevented them from being more widely used in Gulf projects? “As with everywhere in the world, the greatest barrier to the increased usage of wood in building is a lack of knowledge,” says Wiles. “What I mean by this is that the level of awareness and understanding of wood by the decision-makers is, more often than not, far lower than it is for more mainstream, commodity-type materials, such as concrete, aluminum and steel. Specifiers are often dissuaded from using wood because of their own lack of confidence in and understanding of the material. This is very much the case in the Gulf too and, perhaps more so, since wood is not a material from the Gulf itself. Our role is to help specifiers and other decision-makers to develop a greater understanding of wood as a viable, suitable and environmentally-friendly building material for numerous applications, which should, in time, lead to greater use of this wonderful and sustainable material.”
Asked to name a few Gulf projects he sees as showpieces for American hardwood, the official responded: Hotel Sofitel Dubai – The Palm (American ash); Burj Al Arab Hotel, Dubai (American black cherry); Hakkasan Restaurant, Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi (American red oak); The Hub, Dubai Airport (American white oak), and Zayed University Library, Abu Dhabi (American walnut).