I have been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of recent time in the woods. Specifically, the mid-British Columbian woods, which means a lot of spruce, some pine and some aspen, mostly. Anywhere in Canada, urban people like me flock to the lakes, to fish or swim and relax and maybe just to look at the trees. The local people like being local, because they have this diet all year long. The deer browse, the robins flit about and all seems right with the world.
One of the pleasures of the woods is that all of the trees are different. Can you imagine if they were all the same? It’s not as happy a prospect. We like that one leans this way and its neighbour the other. One has a very long and slender trunk, uninterrupted by branches. It’s crowded by its siblings and is doing what it needs to prosper. Another has more room and spreads out selfishly. Growing on a slope will necessitate its own particular response by the inhabiting trees. Some years are easy and the trees grow luxuriantly. Hard years are obviously a struggle.
All of these responses to the realities of the natural world get written into the wood that the trees make. Different amounts of growth per cycle and different kinds of cellular structure to deal with different stresses.
This is mostly good news for us. Natural wood has an inherent beauty that we treasure. A large part of the beauty is the diversity of colour and pattern that only a natural material will give us. For reasons, some of which are mysterious, we seem to have a uniquely positive response to being surrounded by wood. It seems to be in our program.
But we value our materially bountiful world, the one that Industrialization has given us. And from an industrial point of view, wood has its problems. All of the differences that we value visually, have a back story of causing problems for our desires for efficiency and low price. Wood is not, naturally, an industrial material.
Industry has responded by engineering wood-based products that mitigate many of the troublesome issues. Panels are uniform, in a way that natural wood isn’t. As well, they are dimensionally stable (that is, unless they are used as they are not intended to be). They might represent a far greater use of the whole tree, with left less on the ground or in the bush. Mostly, they have given us a more materially abundant world.
One of the things I’ve been doing while in the woods is to reroof a cottage. It was built, incrementally, over the years, with additions as budget and other requirements allowed. And it was, unfortunately, built very badly. One of the markers of this poor state of affairs was the conspicuous ignorance of materials and their properties. OSB panels were used to keep water out. Which they did, up to a point, but not without eventually (and not a long one) popping and fraying. Plywood didn’t do much better. I imagine that those panels were used because they were, comparatively, cheaper and easier. Lumber may not do that much better, depending on how it is used. Spruce isn’t that rot resistant, and it you use it outside with a nail driven through it where the water can get at it, the cellulose eating fungi will get to work in short order.
It is hard not to be critical of this architectural example of heedlessness and recklessness. Of course, there is something quintessentially Canadian about it – the self-reliance, the cheerful expediency, the distain for the careful and the correct. But it also seems wasteful and disrespectful. Wood is a wonderful material, and used carefully, will serve us well and enduringly. Our processed and engineered wood products are also marvels of utility and intelligence. Used as they were intended to be, that is. Part of my uneasiness over this is that I am a designer, educated in the nature of materials and their use. I know what can be achieved and it’s hard not to be disappointed in less.
One of my fellow roofers described our labours of putting a good roof on this assemblage of errors, as putting lipstick on a pig. We have, collectively, the knowledge and intelligence to do a do a good job. Maybe a little less self-reliance would not be a bad thing.
Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University, and chair of its Industrial Design department.
Photo credit: Brandy Saturley