The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) has been championing the use of US hardwood, not just for their aesthetic appeal, but also for their performance and most importantly, sustainability.
As part of its efforts, AHEC has initiated many seminars, competitions and projects, all with the aim of highlighting the versatility of the materials as well as their benefits to the environment.
The latest of which is a special collaboration with esteemed Singaporean designer Nathan Yong, winner of the prestigious Red Dot Concept Design Award for two consecutive years in 2006 and 2007, and recipient of the Singapore President’s Design Award: Designer of the Year, the highest honour accorded to designers from all creative disciplines in Singapore.
Titled “SEA Lifecycle”, this partnership saw Yong creates a five-piece furniture collection using cherry, maple and red oak. As a result, the Lifecycles collection was born.
“It should start with a feeling of strangeness,” Yong said in relation to the response he hopes to achieve. “Why is it built that way? What is the point of it? I hope our curious minds will lead us to understand and appreciate the things around us more, be they natural or manmade.”
The collection was constructed to be deliberately provocative. Yong has always held a fascination for the patch-up furniture pieces that workers used at the furniture workshops he had visited before. He explained that while others may think that these pieces look ugly, he finds them beautiful, especially when you consider how individual elements were fixed or changed to create greater functionality or make them fit for purpose.
“They may look unstable, but they are not,” he said, adding that he wanted his new collection to invoke the same feelings as well.
Yong has taken his lead from the theory of constructivism which emerged in the field of education during the 20th century, with its roots traced back to the works of Jean Piaget in the 1920s and Lev Vygotsky in the 1930s.
The theory focuses on the importance of sociocultural learning; how interactions with adults, more capable peers, and cognitive tools are internalised by learners to form mental constructs through the zone of proximal development.
Yong likens his approach to this project to Vsevolod Meyerhold's Constructivist theatre, a revolutionary perspective on stage design and performance that aimed to break away from traditional forms and embrace the principles of constructivism.
It emphasises the active participation of both actors and audience in the creation and interpretation of their experience, aligning with the belief that individuals construct meaning through their engagement with the environment and social interactions.
American red oak, American maple and American cherry are at the heart of this collection. All grow abundantly in American hardwood forests, making up a total of 40 percent of the forest volume between them, but are currently underused in the design sector. Each plays a key role in the forest ecosystem, and all contribute significantly to its diversity and sustainability.
In addition to being easily renewable and serving as a natural carbon store, the woods are also strong, tactile, versatile, and aesthetically appealing – but all have their own distinctive traits and features.
Lifecycles has provided an opportunity to investigate the scientific underpinning of claims of sustainability and environmental responsibility. The analysis of the collection’s impact on the environment is presented to emphasise the significance of considering environmental factors when choosing materials and the practice of good design.
Yong has embraced this opportunity to provoke the design community and its consumers to question environmentally responsible design: “When people consume stuff they don’t always appreciate the true value of any object, it tends to be a transaction between the cost and what it can do for them.”
“I would like to reinvestigate that relationship through artistic pieces that let people question the real value of objects for them, for nature, for communities and the good of the planet” he says of the collection.
An environmental lifecycle assessment (LCA) of this project has enabled a calculation of the carbon footprint of each of the five designs. The carbon footprint is the quantification of the greenhouse gas emissions during the lifecycle of a product. It is the sum of all gases emitted which influence the energy balance of the atmosphere leading to increased temperature. It is expressed in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2 eq.).
A negative carbon footprint is possible for products made from wood. During growth, trees absorb CO2 from the atmosphere which is locked in the product (and therefore no longer warming the planet) for as long as the product is in use.
The assessment covers all processes from extraction of wood and other raw materials, transport of materials to the processing location, all processing steps in the USA (notably sawing and kilning in the case of wood), transport of processed products to the factory in Malaysia, and manufacture of the finished designs.
The assessment draws on a two-year Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study, commissioned by AHEC and undertaken by PE International (now Thinkstep), to assess environmental impacts linked to delivery of US hardwood into world markets. This involved a wide-ranging assessment of hardwood forestry practices and a survey of hundreds of US hardwood companies.
Information from the LCA of US hardwoods is combined with the latest US government forest inventory data and data gathered during manufacturing. It is also combined with Thinkstep’s existing life-cycle inventory database which covers an expanding range of non-wood materials and products.
The total carbon footprint of the collection is 1257kg of CO2 equivalent. This is about the same as would be produced by the average Singaporean in 55 days, or the equivalent of a one-way economy flight from Singapore to Sydney.
The overall carbon footprint of this collection can be considered quite high for furniture manufactured from US hardwood (which are often carbon neutral due to the low energy input required to produce the material and the large amount of carbon stored in the wood). This can be attributed to a number of factors:
•The reliance on electricity that is dependent on fossil fuels for manufacturing (notably coal in this instance). The opportunity for the manufacturer to use energy from renewable sources would reduce the carbon footprint considerably.
•The bespoke nature of the designs means that the environmental impact per unit is high due to trial and error during fabrication. When producing at scale, manufacturers can used timber more efficiently which would reduce the impact per unit.
•Whilst almost exclusively made from American hardwoods, the designs are relatively light weight which means the carbon that remains stored in the finished furniture could only offset a small part of emissions during manufacturing.
This project demonstrates that minimising the environmental impact of design requires commitment from policy makers, designers and manufacturers and also, importantly, the support of the consumer.
“It is the responsibility of all of us to think about the impact of our actions on the planet and associated climate change,” John Chan, Regional Director for the American Hardwood Export Council commented. “We are grateful to Nathan Yong and to manufacturers Fowseng for their participation in this project. It has enabled us all to learn and to be able to share that learning with the wider community of designers, specifiers and of course the consumer. We are proud of our ability to prove the low environmental impact of American hardwood species even when transported around the world. This is a testament to the hard work of our members from the US hardwood industry who truly value the forest resource and look after it accordingly.”