Timber: past present and future

John Mumford, co-director of Westbury Windows and Joinery, discusses how the window industry changed over the last 30 years.

Thirty years ago, timber windows were tarnished with a bad reputation because many post-war windows were shoddily manufactured with cheap softwoods that had succumbed to rot by the late-70s/early-80s. I remember everybody wanting to clad their house with white PVCU windows, regardless of the property’s heritage, architectural style, or surrounding landscapes.

It was around this time that I had kick-started my career in the timber industry, giving me insight into the importance of well-considered fenestration and window design, and (for me) PVCU just didn’t have a leg to stand on. My work at this time had me surveying hundreds of Georgian and Victorian buildings for the manufacture of replacement joinery, particularly traditional sliding sash windows, before securing a promotion as a technical director.

In the next decade or so, a number of technical industry firsts were instigated by my team, including factory fitted glazing, industrialised application of wooden bars to glass, the use of knot-free laminated timber sections as raw material, and product weather testing – to name a few. Years later, all of these techniques were adopted en masse by everyone and anyone in the UK timber window industry, allowing its reputation to flourish in leaps and bounds.

Dramatic industry growth led to new technology, more precise jointing methods, and ground breaking developments in software control systems. The industry evolved again to bring us to the modern day, and I introduced cutting-edge materials to the timber window market, including durable environmentally friendly European and Siberian Larch laminated raw materials, as an alternative to pine and hardwoods.

I think the change that has had the most impact on the timber window industry was the move to factory fitted glazing and paint finishing. Before this time, products were supplied to the site unglazed with one coat of paint primed, they were built into brickwork and the finishing was left to be done on site which did not always result in a good quality product.

This change had two main effects: firstly, a complete alteration of factory processes and investment in equipment, forcing manufacturers to think harder about design for the best quality finish; and secondly, builders had to change their way of working – rather than build the product into prepared template openings, they had to learn how to handle and fit a finished product into those openings. Overall, this dramatically improved the quality and finish of timber windows.

When it comes to the increasing sophistication of plastic windows, timber window companies such as Westbury are always going to be up against those who manufacture products abroad on a large scale, because they will always come in and undercut our prices.

But this is not a new challenge, and it is part of what inspires the industry to educate consumers on the many benefits of a locally produced, bespoke product that has been crafted for their home compared to one which is straight off the shelf.

The real difficulty for the timber window industry is overcoming the age-old consensus of the general public that solid wood is the best wood. After years of working with a variety of timbers and raw materials, my opinion is that engineered larch and Accoya is the winning combination for a sturdy, environmentally window that will not warp, rot, or split.

Timber window manufacturers, such as Westbury, have had to rethink the entire manufacturing process, particularly the detailed design of fenestration products and the quality of the raw materials, as the trend for high-end fenestration products emerged.

Solid raw timber is rarely used nowadays as the move toward high quality engineered, defect-free timber blanks is necessary to provide stability, increased security and a good base for paint finishes. Successfully done, the timber fenestration market is increasing as consumers see the advantages over products such as PVCU.

I think one area where the aluminium market is partly taking away from timber is the rise in contemporary design residential projects because of the perception of maintenance and aesthetics. However, aluminium-clad timber is also very popular, so timber is still winning its way.

I also think engineered timber materials such as Accoya can start to win back the market in this area due to longer paint finish durability and dual colour finishes as well as the fact Accoya timber also has superior energy insulation and environmental credentials over aluminium products.

We must never forget that in terms of fenestration design, timber is a very flexible material for producing shapes and curves far more economically than aluminium.

Looking to the future, I believe the PVCU window market has had its heyday and is currently experiencing a landslide decline in popularity. Modern British consumers are savvy and extremely switched on – they want to know exactly where their products come from, how they are manufactured, and how they will impact the environment. More and more, they are seeking a window that promises longevity and performance, while complementing the internal and external aesthetics of their property.

Also, with Brexit in our future, I sense that British-made products will regain popularity among consumers, because those products manufactured abroad will have to hike their prices up in order to cover the increased import charges.

The timber window industry will continue to innovate and improve to suit these needs. In many ways, it’s already ahead of the game – all of the technology and knowledge exists, and the challenge moving forward is in educating people on the many benefits of engineered timber joinery and high quality durable factory applied surface coatings.