20 August 2021
The Timber Co-operative: From seed to tree and tree to truss
We caught up with TRADA member and workers co-operative The Timber Co-operative earlier this month to find out how their alternative approach to business enables them to adapt in difficult times.
The Timber Co-operative are unique amongst our membership; they are what their master carpenter Mark Chapman terms a ‘radical’ workers co-operative as well as a social enterprise that is fully owned and operated by its members.
‘All decisions are made by consensus’, he says. ‘We have weekly work meetings where we keep people updated on laterally integrated work, and monthly meetings where we make decisions – for example, deciding to buy something. We make sure that everyone is involved in everything the whole time. We think it’s the most equitable way to run the business.’
Starting out, he and his partner operated a mobile sawmill and framing workshop, buying a single load of timber, then milling and building with it onsite. As customer interest in the business grew, the focus shifted from this service orientation to a more product-led approach, resulting in the setting up of a permanent wood yard in Caernarfon.
The new, settled base enabled a partnership to form with an experienced local joiner and a student from one of Mark’s timber framing courses. This group was to form the nucleus of the co-operative. The co-op now has 9 full-time employees, 6 of whom are full members, coming from backgrounds as varied as archaeology and tool making, forestry and fine art.
‘[My favourite part of being in a co-operative] is being told no. A lot of what I do is research and keeping abreast of the market. Often I come up with an idea that I think we could do and the other guys in the co-operative say “no, it’s a terrible idea”. It’s a relief to have that collective genius and experience to rely on, especially from people with backgrounds in other industries.’
It works, Mark says, because all of them have skills, tools and experience to bring that are equally valuable. ‘A co-operative is certainly the most equitable way to represent the partnership we already had as a group.’
‘We are a green business and we agree with the ethics behind the co-operative movement. There’s a social and environmental attitude that is implied by being in a co-op that gives potential customers and clients the brand awareness of what we are about without having to describe it in quite so many words. We don’t have to work as hard as other green businesses to demonstrate these values, because they’re imbedded in the fabric of how we work.’
Mark manages the workshop and completes all the structural design work, which tends towards the more traditional variety; he usually develops conventional post and beam – often with hidden connections – or timber frame, and incorporates old style techniques for handicraft designs.
The Timber Co-operative works with many other community groups – notably Llyn Parc Mawr Community Woodland Group, which was established in 2014 to cultivate Llyn Parc Mawr as a sustainable woodland area, preserve and improve biodiversity, and contribute to the overall well-being of the local community.
Over the course of the last couple of years, they have built Llyn Parc Mawr a big outdoor classroom and an octagonal bird hide which looks out over the lake. They are now in the process of building them a series of timber bridges which will lead around the lake and into the woods.
The Timber Co-operative focuses exclusively on supplying Welsh timber and source as much of their timber as possible from within Gwynedd to reduce “timber miles”. They are keen on the idea of a fully British supply chain, and think the industry is too reliant on imports from abroad. ‘We’ve known this for over 100 years, which is why we created the Forestry Commission in the first place.’
They pride themselves on being in control of their full supply chain, which proved useful during the pandemic. ‘We found ourselves a lot less vulnerable to suppliers saying they haven’t got what we need,’ Mark said. ‘When we work on a project, we supply all the timber on it – straight from the woods, and to the customer. Although we’re seeing some price rises in our raw material costs, it’s no more than we expected and we’ve taken it into account.’
The workshop went quiet during lockdown, when projects on the schedule that had been agreed in the long-term got put on hold. However, its staff were redeployed into running the mill – which remained in major demand throughout. ‘For a while, we were the only place you could buy wood from locally’, Mark added.
21 September 2021