Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is going to play a very important role in building a more sustainable future and is, in my opinion, one of the most important areas of environmental research.
Essentially, it is the measurement of an object’s environmental impact, and by giving a thing a rating consumers can make informed choices about what they consume. It may even go as far as to determine our systems of taxation in the future as the methods of LCA become more accurate and advanced.
The American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) are the first major body to commission a LCA study into the timber industry. There has been lots of data accumulated in other industries such as metal, plastic, and concrete, who all want to defend their goods environmentally, but AHEC have decided that they want to have timber compared with those industries on the same level. And the data is expected to prove the assumption that timber is a much more environmentally benign material.
AHEC have teamed up with the Royal College of Art, and Benchmark Furniture on this project, asking the RCA MA Products students to design some chairs to be assessed, and Benchmark to manufacture them. The RCA is an internationally renowned postgraduate institution, and Benchmark have arguably the most advanced workshop for high-end furniture in the UK in terms of both equipment and skills, and a reputation spreading as widely as the Royal College’s.
I was invited by Benchmark to join the project and work alongside the Director, Sean Sutcliffe, in organising the week of making with the students. I spent some time down at the RCA meeting the students and getting a grasp of their projects, and advising on their designs from a perspective of manufacturing. I then went back to Benchmark to order the materials and ensure we were well prepared for the students’ arrival, as making 12 different chair projects in a single week was going to be a huge task.
The week itself was fantastic. We began with a briefing of the expert makers before the students arrived, who were Mike Bradley – a renowned woodturner, Will Reed – an expert boatbuilder, Pete and Mark from Benchmark, my good chum and skilled maker Liam Treanor, and myself. I had a really good feeling about the team of makers, and we assigned between two and three chair projects to each maker.
The students were diligent in recording the times of the machinery use, and their material usage and wastage, even down to grams of glue and millilitres of lacquer. The absolute key to the success of the projects was not how the chairs looked, but the data acquired for each project. And what a range a diverse projects there were – from a simple felled tree carved with a chainsaw, to a super-lightweight disposable stool, to a floating chair (a boat), and a 4metre long bench made of 5mm thick timber strips.
As diverse as the projects were, the students were too. Some were very capable with the tools and machinery, and only needed a little guidance and advice on how to make their pieces, others had designed projects that were technically very advanced and required a lot of one-on-one tuition. As usual, I enjoyed tutoring at all levels and found the whole week really rewarding. I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring project – an environmental making project with some very prestigious institutions.
I feel really privileged to have worked on this project, and I look forward to seeing the pieces in the V&A in September during the London Design Festival.
Thanks to Mark C. O’Flaherty and AHEC for the images.