In pursuing a sustainable approach towards manufacturing regenerative timber, sponsor for the IDEA Institutional category Crafted Hardwoods responds to the inescapable conundrum of timber being the most renewable material, yet one disadvantaged by a slow natural growing process and requiring protection from deforestation.
Geoffrey Swinbourne was sitting at a think-tank dinner in Canberra with nearly 50 other people from a wide range of disciplines – academics, town planners, architects, project managers and the like – when he realised a possible hitch in the fight against climate change.
A veteran of the commercial furniture sales industry for nearly 25 years, Swinbourne worked with Zenith for almost 13 of these years, and over time witnessed one of the most reputable manufacturers in workplace design embrace sustainability.
The think tank in question that Swinbourne attributes as responsible for encouraging the eventual launch of Crafted Hardwoods was hosted by Zenith in conjunction with Salon Canberra, a networking business fronted by Catherine Carter that is focused on cross-sector collaboration.
Swinbourne recalls that the dinner’s topic was climate change, and the attendees were privileged to hear, Prof. Mark Howden, the head of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University deliver a speech. A buzz word wafted around that piqued Swinbourne’s interest.
“Everyone was saying that it’s all about policy – policy has to change, and I agree with that, but I was one of the only people in the room who came from a product background, so my response was, well, surely it’s also about product,” says Swinbourne.
In his view, to ensure growth with limited resources in combatting the implications of climate change, the potential of products – rather than policy – are staring society right in the face.
“I came away from that think tank wanting to ask more questions – it really just opened the door to sustainability for me – having two small children, you want to leave a better world for them,” says Swinbourne.
Mobilisation happened fairly quickly after that. Swinbourne acted as Zenith’s chief sustainability officer for a year, and completed a business sustainability management course at Cambridge University.
Swinbourne was eager to aim higher than the low-hanging fruit of sustainable materials to be marketed as products, such as recycling plastic bottles and turning them into a chair.
And after waiting seven months for timber to be drip-fed to Canberra for a Zenith project, an idea struck Swinbourne.
“I went on the hunt for timber and found these guys who were just coming to market to look for someone to do the manufacturing. They gave me some samples, and we had a bit of a play with it, and I couldn’t help myself – I thought, this is it, a world-first Australian innovation that we can build from the ground up,” says Swinbourne.
In addition to his realisation of the untapped potential of timber, staggering statistics galvanised Swinbourne’s vision into action – only seven percent of the nearly 1.7 billion cubic metres of timber logged globally each year is redirected into sawn hardwood products. Moreover, 45 percent of these logged resources qualify as low-value.
Swinbourne advertised the idea to start a business to his wife Cristel – whose father hails from a long line of timber sawmilling – as a golden opportunity to make a difference not hyper-fixated on profit.
“We could bring this to market at the same price as natural timber and still achieve the sustainability goals that we want to achieve,” says Swinbourne.
Swinbourne remembers showing a sample to Cristel’s father, and prompting him to find all the reasons why they shouldn’t embark on this new frontier ripe with opportunity – he couldn’t, and the business was registered in the first week of March this year.
It sounds almost like a plot for a science fiction film – growing trees in a machine over one day on Australian soil. This amounts to one cubic metre of timber produced every hour.
But Crafted Hardwoods is anything but a sci-fi ruse – the process to make sustainable and regenerative timber involves advanced technology developed by 3RT in collaboration with Flinders University, Henkel Adhesive Technologies and Bosch.
The process involves converting low-value Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) pulp grade resources – generally destined for woodchips – into premium hardwoods that sport the look, texture and properties of 100-year-old trees.
This timber can then be used in a vast array of structural and decorative applications such as flooring, stairs, structural posts, doors, windows and furniture.
3RT’s ingenious approach to timber manufacturing lies within its ability to utilise technology to biomimic the regenerative and renewable properties of timber and accelerate the growing process. And the secret ingredient? Nanoscience.
“The process all revolves around this water-based nano-glue.”
“The best way to explain it would be that the properties of nanoscience’s little particles are akin to sunscreen – the white cream that you use in sunscreen is the carrier, and the tiny little zinc particles that sit on your pores reflect the sun. The water-based nano-glue that 3RT uses is like that – the water is the carrier and the nanoparticles are the little bits of zinc,” says Swinbourne.
Complex-to-the-untrained-mind science aside, 3RT’s pioneering method is a huge leap in the right direction, and one that Swinbourne perceives as realistic and achievable while still rooted in ambition.
“There sometimes seems to be this assumption that cutting-edge sustainable materials have to solve every problem – I’ve done a few presentations and had people seem sceptical as they want to know what we’re doing with all the branches from the trees,” says Swinbourne.
The exhausting plight to address all issues of climate change in one solution is not only immobilising yet neglectful of the bigger picture, Swinbourne believes.
“These are the resources we’ve got available at the right price point to be able to bring it to market and make it affordable so that people will use it. If we start making it bigger, it becomes cost prohibitive and people simply won’t use it.”
“I want people to embrace it, and not assume it’s another gimmick or fad.”
Crafted Hardwoods is still very young – yet aspiring towards big things.
“I would love to be one of the first blue collar companies that can do a four day week for manufacturing but on a full-time salary,” says Swinbourne.
Crafted Hardwoods also advocates sustainability across all areas of business, pursuing gender equality and equal opportunity, alongside creating a supportive and nurturing workplace environment.
Photography supplied by Crafted Hardwoods.
We recently welcomed Crafted Hardwoods as a sponsor for the IDEA institutional category.