«Foresso is less about trying to emulate stone and more about using the terrazzo style to make good use of the wood», Conor Taylor reveals the motivation behind the circular company
In responsible timber production, older trees are felled and used in industries like design and construction. Many countries around the world contribute towards silviculture, where the guiding principles of forest growth are applied, leading to “natural processes [that] are deliberately guided to produce forests that are more useful than those of nature and to do so in less time”. The United Kingdom is among them, where the wood industry is thriving, with many improvements in sustainability, such as the growing attention towards the recycling of wood waste up to the end of production. From last year, the amount of waste wood that is processed in the UK increased by six percent to 3.98 million tons in 2019, according to new figures from a survey by the Wood Recyclers Association (WRA). From 2011, wood waste processing had increased from 2.8 million tons to 3.75 million tons in 2018.
Much can still be done with the timber use in the industry, particularly when looking at the high-end of the industry that creates more waste and offcuts as a result of industry standards. Conor Taylor, a young designer, worked in a South London carpentry shop where he saw timber offcuts being thrown away in this way. His idea to use them to create a new surface led to his partnership with Jake Solomon of Solomon & Wu and a unique focus on Foresso, a terrazzo-like surface made from wood offcuts, planning waste, and 0 percent VOC bio-resin. «In 2018, we decided after a debate what we think manufacturing should be and what sustainability aims we will follow; and we went into business together, cutting everything we considered unsustainable from our product lines. This meant we dropped 21 other products and bet only on Foresso, taking a 90 percent revenue hit in that year». Since their foundation, they have supplied brands like Christian Louboutin for their store in Shanghai, Rapha Washington’s clubhouse and Miller Harris’s new shop in King’s Cross, where they used a London plane tree from Euston.
Terrazzo originally came from the Venetian paving stones from the Eighteenth century. In the last few years, it has become popular as a design aesthetic, and a way of using scrap materials to reduce their landfill and ecological impact. «Foresso is less about trying to emulate stone and more about using the terrazzo style to make good use of the wood. We use a lot of non-commercial timber that does not have a good purpose in joinery, but it has texture. That aesthetic suits this kind of work, because it is all smashed up – you do not have to have consistent hardwood planks. It is this blend of natural beauty and manufactured aesthetic, as it is identifiable human-made, but it is all about the natural materials».
The processing of Foresso is guided by the principle of uniform random spread, as even with terrazzo, the seeming irregularity is planned to maintain the design features. «We get the offcuts from Saunders, our supplier. We cut them into strips, and then we smash them with a machine originally made for processing animal feeds to a smaller grade. We have adapted it to suit Foresso to get evenly sized chips that get sorted by hand, so that they meet the aesthetic criteria we have. They are then mixed with the wood dust, mineral powders, bio-resin, and finally, cast by hand directly onto the plywood. We sand the surface back with industrial machines to show the wood chips, fill any little air bubbles, sand it again, and then finish it by hand and oil or lacquer it before sending it out. By controlling the cutting, it means we also control the waste. It has to be sent back to us – to recycle it; recycling competence is difficult because there are many different materials. What we do is shred it back down to a fine grain and tip that back in with all of the wood waste and wood dust we use and mix it all to make a homogenous mixture, and then put that back into the sheets. Our limitations mostly come from our machinery, as our machinery is very specialist. I often get questions like ‘can you do the Foresso style but with something else like recycled rubber or metal?’. We always have to say that we have got a building full of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of industrial machinery, and it processes wood and nothing else. It is also labor intensive because we use something that is not standard, so it comes in all shapes and sizes. We use a lot of London plane that are non-commercial timber and very fibrous, full of things like nails, shrapnel or paving slab pieces. We process it all by hand on a bandsaw».
The construction industry has a significant difference from other industries as many projects are worked on into the future, with final structures mostly going up over a decade or more. This means that while current legislation applies, many innovations are useful in projecting the industry’s direction. «Many funds and big capital are now looking at sustainable ventures because they are looking 10, 20, 30 years ahead for their own funds, and for them, it is either change or die. For the average building projects, between 50 and 60 percent of the carbon emissions are from the material choices. In order to hit carbon-neutral building targets that the UK has set for new builds in 2030, which is only 10 years away, and supposedly carbon-neutral UK by 2050, including all refit work, you would have to use waste materials. I do not see how you can be carbon-neutral doing the building work because as soon as someone turns up on-site, it is not carbon-neutral. The only way to do this would be to have materials that store and consume more carbon than the building block». As Foresso is a composite, it would allow construction to resume with a smaller carbon effect as waste material is already incorporated into the structure.
Foresso’s innovative approach resides in the founding principles of the company, its modern approach to marketing, and wide use of applications that do not limit it to professional use. «In the industry, sometimes it is greenwashing, and then companies are missing other parts by focusing on a limited approach. The things to acknowledge are – where you are, where you want to go, and what you do badly, as well as what you do well. Sustainability is this grey area where everyone has a different definition of it, and we are manufacturing something, so it is inherently unsustainable. All we can do is pick steadily better choices». According to Taylor, many companies do not focus enough on being transparent through their social channels and websites. As most timber and material production for the design industry used to be insular, the response to modern shifts has been relatively slow. Foresso states all of their components, showing customers where they aim to improve next, a quality for consumers who are getting savvier with their purchasing choices and see value in supporting local, sustainable businesses.
This traditional approach has been hard to shift for Taylor and convince the industry of their innovation. «The wood supply chain has been an issue as we have got bigger because people will ask us for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest) certification. We cannot get this because those require managed forests that are in a known place. If you bought a sheet of Foresso, I will give you the postcode where a tree was felled, but I cannot give you an FSC certificate because the next tree will be in a different postcode and would fail. We work with a supplier called Saunders Seasonings, who supplied us and acted like a timber source for us. Our goal was to find a use for things that did not have a circular economy attached. Small suppliers, sawmills, and furniture makers do not have an output for this. They are not big enough to get paid for their waste or to recycle it».
However, many of their suppliers recognize the importance of the wood waste and recycling industries and adapt their processes to make room for what is fast becoming one of the key areas in construction and design. «We started working with another company founded by biomaterial scientists called Cambond that has developed a type of glue that is made from agricultural and distilling waste, made to directly replace the glues in MDF, plywood, and similar materials. The company can produce enough of it for us, but not enough for the average panel manufacturer, who is not interested in using it. Because if you are producing 20,000 cubic meters of MDF a day, why mess around with its structure?». Cambond has been shortlisted this year for the Innovation of the Year 2020 Award by BusinessGreen Leaders that focus on building a green economy. «Our machinery supplier is now designing and manufacturing entire production lines for wood processing. We are talking to a German company that designs and manufactures gigantic production lines. They have started a department to make composite materials from waste streams». It appears that the wood industry is tackling its waste problem seriously, while also recognizing the financial value in using up all aspects of the material. For many industries like plastic, that is still a problem as the processing exceeds the material’s value. In that sense, timber recycling for companies like Foresso is a far more reliable pathway towards a circular future.IMAGE GALLERY
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