Serendipity, timber statistics and the search for a better understanding of construction output

Serendipity, timber statistics and the search for a better understanding of construction output

Serendipity led me from some UNECE Timber Committee forecasts released today to some timber usage data I wasn’t all that familiar with, more of which later.

First the forecasts. It’s important to know that UK construction accounts (on the last count) for about 84% of imported softwood. This proportion is up on earlier years when the share tended to be in the low 70s as a percentage.

Either way any forecast for imported softwood will be heavily influenced by the expected prospects for UK construction.

So what do the forecasts say? Well the expectation is for a fall of about 5% in volume of imported softwood between 2010 and 2012. That seems fair enough for construction given the way things are going.

But what I found more intriguing as I winkled around in the data was that the average consumption of timber in non-residential construction in the years 2008 and 2009 was 28% lower than in the average of the preceding three years.

Now there may be some glitches with this timber data, or some nuances I have missed. But however many allowances we might make – such as taking infrastructure out of the equation – this suggests a far more dramatic collapse in non-residential construction than the official figures show.

That, in my book, is another choice morsel to feed my pet theory (for which sadly I have found few disciples) that the peak of construction output has been understated in the official data.

This may seem a bizarre concern, but if construction actually fell further in the recession than the figures show it has implications for the way policy makers view the industry’s plight.

So I will continue to twiddle with this particular puzzle for some while yet.

As an aside, I was interested to find that new housing accounts for less of the total timber used in construction than I would have thought. Even in the boom years it appears to have accounted for less than 8% of all imported softwood. I know that I should have had a better feel for this, but we all wander around with misconceptions, misunderstandings and notknowings.

Still I ended up with a set of figures for consumption of softwood by main market.

So armed with this mini data series I thought I would track the annual figures provided for softwood used in new housing with the UK housing starts and completion figures.

I chose also to make a composite of the average of starts and completions on the grounds that construction actually happens in between the two.

Now there will be lags and definitional problems and a whole host of other confounding factors, but the relationships interested me.

It would seem on the basis of this data that in recent years for each home built in the UK we are using less softwood.

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