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Building a case for eco-friendly pine
20 July 2014

Eco Timber company Abodo Wood owes much of its recent growth to a customer complaint it received in its second year of operation. 

The company had been exporting treated pinus radiata to the Pacific  when founder Daniel Gudsell received a call in 2004 from a customer in American Samoa. Children who had been playing on Abodo plywood were admitted to hospital with chronic nose bleeds, believed to be caused by exposure to the wood's light organic solvent preservative (LOSP). 

It was from there that Gudsell made an about-turn on the company's business model, developing its own sustainably sourced Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified pinus radiata, treated with a low-toxicity plant-based preservative.

 ''That [incident] was very concerning for us and it raised lots of alarm bells. We started saying, 'Wait a second, should we be doing something different?''' 

There is increasing awareness of wood preservatives in overseas markets says Gudsell. Copper, chrome and arsenic (CCA) wood treatment is an industry standard in New Zealand, but the chemical preservative is now either banned or restricted in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, United States and Canada due to toxicity concerns.

While exports of New Zealand CCA-treated wood have been limited in these countries, Abodo has gained ground overseas with its eco-treated sawn lumber. Europe and Australia have become Abodo's key markets and exports account for 95 per cent of the company's $31 million annual turnover.

International demand for sustainably grown exterior wood materials prompted Gudsell to look for ways to expand its product line. Using Callaghan Innovation funding and forestry Crown research facility Scion, the company spent several years developing its Elements Vulcan pinus radiata cladding and decking range.

Designed as a sustainable alternative to hardwoods such as cedar, softwood pine is made durable enough for the outdoors by fossilising it in a German-made zero-oxygen thermal modification kiln. The wood is then laminated and engineered to prevent cracking.

Launched on the market last year, sales of the Elements Vulcan range have been encouraging and the products are driving the company's growth, Gudsell said.

"We went through a phase where we had a business built on commodity products like sawn timber, but these IP-developed products are now taking a bigger percentage of our sales," Gudsell said.

"We still have an element of commodity trade to our business because that's what we have to do to pay the bills but a lot of the profits in our business are reinvested into our new range of products."

Launching the Elements Vulcan range has had its challenges. With pine a similar price to cedar, the company's biggest hurdle is customer perception of pine as unsuitable as an outdoor product.

"New Zealand is a large importer of red cedar - but our question is, ‘Why don't people just use local wood?' But cedar has got a reputation for being durable and it's probably got 100 years of history in New Zealand," Gudsell said.

"Cedar doesn't always work the way people expect it to and it's taken people 100 years to get used to that, so it's going to take us a while to get good market penetration with our product."

Although Abodo is the only company in the world making thermally-modified pinus radiata cladding, there are plenty of players in the eco-friendly building materials market.

One of the company's strategies to get noticed has been to seek work on high-profile building projects such as the Tuhoe iwi headquarters Te Uru Taumatua.

The $15 million building in Taneatua, finished in March, is New Zealand's first structure designed for the Living Building Challenge. The strict international building certification programme requires structures to be sustainable across seven performance areas: site, water, energy, health, materials, equity and beauty, and to be Triple Net Zero for energy, water and waste.

The majority of the exterior cladding and decking of Te Uru Taumatua is made of Abodo wood, but the company also created interior products such as doors to help the building comply to the strict Living Building Project rules.

"That project was very ambitious with its environmental credentials and nobody had ever done anything like this before in New Zealand," Gudsell said.

"It was a lot of extra work, and although interiors are not our core business we helped them out.

"A criteria of the Living Building Challenge is supplying 100 per cent FSC certified wood and we had a lot of IP that allowed the builders to tick all of the right boxes.

"For us, it's about getting reference projects like this because if people can see it, they can believe it."

Last month Abodo won a Green Ribbon Award from the Ministry for the Environment for its industry leadership creating sustainable wood exports. However, there's a lot of hard work ahead for Abodo, Gudsell said.

"We've got a lot more work to do in our export markets and in New Zealand and we hope with projects like [Te Uru Taumatua] we can have a snowball effect."

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