Communication by semiochemical substances represents only one type among many for trees. In his life’s journey, Dr. Erwin Thoma met another outstanding forester, Mr. Peter Wohlleben, whose books are also available in English. He made a surprising discovery about forests. As it turns out, communication methods between trees are incredibly complex. For example, trees recognize the saliva of various animals. Recent research by Leipzig University shows that when a deer bites a twig, the tree responds differently than when a person breaks it. Trees react to the saliva of caterpillars in yet another way. For example, oaks give off a special smell signal then, in the form of a semiochemical substance, thus calling predators such as hymenoptera bees for help. These lay eggs in the leaf-devouring caterpillars and as a result, the caterpillars get devoured from the inside by the newly hatched eggs.
Trees also communicate through their root systems called the wood wide web. It serves to convey warnings to its neighboring trees so that they could get ready for danger, such as insect attacks or drought. These signals are transmitted, as those in our nervous system, through electrical impulses and chemical substances. Where the roots of the trees do not reach, the information is transmitted through the connected mycelium network. Trees pay their "helpers" back by providing them with sugar. Mycelia are the largest living organisms on the Earth. Their size reaches thousands of acres, and some scientists claim that all mycelia on the Earth are connected. When trees at the bottom of the slope begin to feel the lack of water due to the drought, they inform other trees. These close their pores, thereby reducing water loss and slowing down photosynthesis. When one tree is attacked by wood borers, all trees within 50 meters change production to defensive substances. In our common larch, one of these substances is resin. It contains about 1000 complex chemicals and is the world's best natural fungicide, bactericidal and virucidal agent. Some trees can live more than 1000 years thanks to it. The ointment made from resin beats any pharmaceuticals that accelerate wound healing; however, it will never hit the market or doctors' offices, because its synthesis and patenting will probably never be possible, and pharmaceutical companies will not be able to make any money on it. This was stated by Professor Max Moser, who was mentioned earlier, and who was asked by Dr. Thoma to analyze the miracle wound ointment prepared by his grandmother. As a side fact, the same applies to Indian cannabis, which contains almost 445 unexplored compounds and is a cure for dozens of diseases, including cancer, as shown by the latest research in Germany and Israel, among others.
Hotel Seiser Alm of the Urthaler family is the largest wooden hotel in Europe with 45 family suites. Timber necessary for its construction was produced by the Austrian forest in an hour and a half. The forest not only has a healing effect on people, but it is also a system of exemplary economy. Forestry and economics are two academic areas of science which teach things that are completely the opposite. While we profit by exponential growth and elimination of competition is the only goal for the economy, the forest is based on cooperation to create the best conditions for the next generation. These are terms foreign to economists. Trees compete with each other only at the beginning of their careers, but they do not try to grow indefinitely and seize all resources for themselves.
When a tree dies, it returns each of its particles to where it came from. It leaves no waste in the wake of its life. Waste doesn’t exist nor is created. The only thing that exists is the circuit and cycle of its life. According to Dr. Thoma, this model is the only one we humans may model a sustainable economy on. There is no alternative. Dr. Thoma's computerized and robotized factory draws all the energy from photovoltaics and the surplus is returned to the grid. It manufactures without waste, from material that is created from carbon dioxide. Dr. Thoma claims that any economy or energy crisis is nonsense. The only crisis in the world is the crisis of our minds. We lack nothing other than the right concept for our economy. Today's furniture is made of particleboards glued together with chlorine derivatives and formaldehyde resins. They are extremely harmful to health and nature, and are classified as hazardous waste for the purpose of their disposal. Their disposal is more expensive than the purchase of solid wood of the same weight. However, it is a billion dollar industry supported by lobbyists and politicians. Humankind debates global warming caused by carbon dioxide, when one tree may neutralize tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. Instead of building waste-free wooden houses, we insulate them with styrofoam, which besides mildew offers minimal effects, and when soiled with plaster is almost impossible to dispose of. We burn carbon, gas, and oil to heat and cool buildings, when a few photovoltaic batteries can deliver more power to a wooden building than it needs. It is now the ideal time to start thinking differently. As you can see from Dr. Thoma's example, sometimes one man's perseverance is sufficient to initiate small, big changes in the world.
The notes he took throughout his observations eventually became a manuscript and was accidentally discovered by a publisher. He talked Dr. Thoma into publishing his first book, “I Saw You Grow”, in which he precisely described the phenomenon of moonwood. Dr. Thoma’s friends advised him not to disclose secrets of his business. However, he believed that he should not keep this precious knowledge to himself, because it could change people's thinking about wood and make the world a little better as a result. He believed that what goes around comes around. This book caused a stir among the entire woodworking industry in the German-speaking area and many old craftsmen reacted positively to it. However, scientists and other industries responded with a hail of criticism and ridicule. He was called the moon whisperer and stamped as an esoteric.
An Austrian trade magazine has even commissioned research that was supposed to officially confirm that moonwood was nonsense. And, of course, test results matched the client's wishes, as it often happens in such cases. However, the book also reached Professor Ernst Zurcher at the ETH Institute in Zürich. It is the best technical university in Europe and one of the most renowned technical universities in the world. Based on his accumulated knowledge, a five-year research was organized to study moonwood. Similar research efforts were also initiated in Vienna and Hamburg. The Vienna and Hamburg research was short lived and proved nothing. On the other hand, the five-year research in Zürich confirmed the truth of the old grandfather’s knowledge. The results of these studies have been published in the most reputable publications of the world. Professor Zurcher still continues to research the impact of moon on various nature related phenomena.
The first thing discovered in Zurich was that a tree would pulse in step with the phases of the moon, i.e., it would swell and shrink in diameter by a fraction of a millimeter. Nevertheless, its length would never change. It was also discovered that each tree would form an electromagnetic field around it. One could think of this as some kind of an aura. The field's potential would increase and decrease in step with the phases of the moon. Next, the research concentrated on the intermolecular interactions in wood - most importantly those related to water. It was discovered that such interactions, similar to tides, also changed under the influence according to the phases of the moon. Water in its liquid state always manifests in systems called clusters. This phenomenon is poorly researched and contains many secrets yet to unfold. Some theories claim that such clusters carry information.
The ETH Institute in Zurich discovered that during the waning moon, individual molecules of water disconnected from the clusters and temporarily combined with single molecules of cellulose on the surface of capillaries. This can be described as the smallest mechanical mixture that exists. This phenomenon brings quantum physics into mind. The water molecule in this state is no longer in a liquid, gas, or solid state – it is in a fourth state described as gelled or gelatinous. Once the moon phase changes, these molecules separate which is scientifically inexplicable today. The only significant discovery was that it was controlled by the electromagnetic field surrounding the tree. It can be said that the moon affects the water contained in wood rather than the wood itself, thus improving properties of the wood. If the tree is harvested down during the waning moon phase, the resulting timber is so resistant to pests and fungi that the use of any wood preservatives or other chemicals is absolutely unnecessary. Such wood has the potential to last for hundreds of years without any maintenance or chemical treatment.
As it turns out, this knowledge was already in use in ancient Rome. In their records, moonwood was found to be used in building warships, as it was not prone to be attacked by harmful crustaceans. Julius Caesar even instituted the death penalty for ship builders who used wood other than moonwood. Pliny, a historian and Roman writer, also wrote about moonwood. Similar laws existed practically in every high culture in human history.
This was another event in the life of Dr. Thoma that made him start questioning modern methods of problem solving. Since the properties of wood saved his children from suffering, he thought that there might be a demand for traditional woodworking. He decided to open a woodworking shop, with an idea that wood might also help other people. He asked his grandfather to be his advisor. And this is how, in the 80’s, they started their business - one that would run completely contrary to the modern trends of civilization. Initially, most of their orders were for flooring. Unfortunately, these floors were often installed in new buildings, where there was still a lot of moisture in the concrete. As a result, the wood would swell with time, and the parquets would expand and contract.
Again, it was his grandfather who came up with a solution. He mentioned how we should only and solely use wood that was harvested at its best. What does it mean, though? The idea is to only harvest wood when the sap levels are its lowest in winter, but most importantly, to do it solely during the waning moon.
“Grandfather”, Dr. Thoma replied. “I studied forestry engineering in Vienna with the best professors. If such knowledge existed, I would have heard about it a long time ago.” Still, his grandfather remained stubborn. “I've been doing this all my life, you should try it, too” - he said. Dr. Thoma was still skeptical; however, he decided to harvest the next batch of timber in January, during the waning moon.
His timber was set aside in one pile while lumberjacks continued to work on a new pile of timber, despite the fact that the moon had already entered a different phase. The timber they cut at this time was set aside in another pile at the neighbor's. Because of the snow, the wood could not be transported, so they had to wait until spring. Once the snow melted, Mr. Thoma went to fetch the wood. The first thing he did was to check for woodworms, and it turned out that there were no signs of pests on it.
Out of curiosity, he checked the other pile of wood at the neighbor's and found that it was completely infested with woodworms! This was the third time that Dr. Thoma reveled in the fact that there was more knowledge to be learned about wood than what he had learned at the university. As he continued to work with wood, he began conducting his own research and took notes. It turned out that this “moonwood”, as he called it, was more resistant to fungus, and especially to blue stain fungi. It dried faster and was more resistant to fire. And, most of all, it was harder and stronger, with no tendency to swell when exposed to moisture.
Today, Dr. Thoma builds homes everywhere including the tropics next to termite mounds, where everything is usually eaten by insects except Holz100 homes. As he claims, there has never been any problems with woodworms or fungi.
Unexpectedly one day, two men knocked on the door of the forester Dr. Thoma’s house. They introduced themselves as violin makers also referred to as luthiers. They asked for help in finding the right wood to create new instruments. It turned out that old luthier masters used to build the most perfect violins with wood from trees growing in the Karwendel Hills. Dr. Thoma was surprised that no one has ever mentioned this during his education of forestry. Curious and intrigued, he decided to help them in their quest. When they went out to the woods the next day, he learned that the wood specifically used for violins was something extraordinary. Out of a 1,000,000 spruce trees, they needed to find the one tree that would be ideal for the creation of a violin. There was no device or machine that could identify such a tree but only human senses, intuition and a small amount of knowledge in soil science. A tree like this only grew in a specific places; high in the mountains but resting within wind-sheltered coves.
The grain structure of such a tree is particularly fine and even. A wind-blown tree results in an unstable structure which are unwanted in violins.
The luthiers spent days knocking on trees and listening to their sounds, and finally after a few days, they came to Dr. Thoma full of joy. They found a large spruce tree that could may be suitable. They were delighted with what they found, so the tree was cut down and taken away to be made into a violin. With time, Dr. Thoma forgot about this interesting experience. A year passed, and the luthiers came to knock on his door again. However, this time they did not come for wood. Usually, wood for violins must be seasoned for at least 10 years before it is used. Sophisticated chemical processes, technically insignificant, occur in wood within that long timeframe; these processes are, however, important to the process of producing such a special instrument. The luthiers couldn’t stand waiting and decided to try and build a violin regardless. To express their gratitude to Dr. Thoma and his family, they came to play a small violin concert in front of his house, in the middle of the forest.
Mr. Thoma loved trees and the forest, but he wasn't especially romantic about them. However, the sound of his trees coming from the violin introduced him to a new world. He began to realize that there was more to wood than he had been taught at the universities. He was moved to the point that he couldn't stop thinking about it. He was trying to understand how it was possible. The luthiers had no technology, no measuring instruments, just their intuition, tradition, and old knowledge carried over from generation to generation - and they created such an incredible instrument out of a piece of wood. Two worlds began to collide in his mind. On the one hand, his technocratic, engineering education, and on the other one was scientifically unexplained, ancient and traditional knowledge.
When he shared his thoughts in a conversation, one of the luthiers asked if he knew what the added value was when creating such a violin. Of course, Dr. Thoma had no idea. “Look” - the luthiers said - “a violin like this weighs about 470 grams. If you wanted to pay for it with the equivalent of its weight in gold, you would be laughed out of court. If you wanted to pay 10 times as much in gold, you would be laughed at as well. Only if you offered a 100 times its weight in gold, you might be lucky and be able to buy such a violin”.
Craftsmen, who had no advanced technology at their disposal, were able to make spruce timber a 100 times more expensive than gold. It is not just the material value that counts. Such an exceptional instrument becomes priceless for all human cultures, since its sound will continue to provide joy to many generations of music lovers for centuries.
In the spirit of technical advancement, the relationship between human beings and building materials is defined by numbers and patents. Today, many wood workers only work with standards and regulations.
I am not demonizing all norms and regulations here; however, it simply is erroneous and destructive to reduce our relationship with trees to numbers and regulations. Sorting out and grading the quality of building wood by counting the branches of the trees doesn't result in buildings which last for centuries. A practical example are the trade laws, norms and standards which regulate the wood industry. They grade by the exact numbers and size of branches in a board or beam. Our experience however shows that the amount of branches is one of the least criteria which contribute to quality. For our winter gardens and glass facades we fit large glass panels of solid untreated timber beams. Those beams ave to be absolutely steady. If there is any movement as through cracking or warping, the glass would shatter. The largest glass panels we ever installed were about 5 meter high thermal glass panels in one piece. These panels are still intact even after many years and have amazed quite a few.
It would be extremely difficult for us to achieve the required qualities (like durability and stability) by solely relying on industry norms. These regulations don't say anything about the right selection or the right time for harvesting trees. They do not mention the markedly different qualities of juvenile and mature trees. There is no comparison between wood drying naturally slow and super-fast kiln drying.
We have used beams which have up to 10cm 'splay knots' to support large glass panels. According to standards, these beams are of low grade. However, they have performed perfectly for many years and they will do so for generations to come. Branches are the organs of a tree and are a big part of the wood story.
For the winter garden I could have used an industrial 'high grade' wood without any knots. It could have grown in an unnatural monoculture, harvested while still juvenile, in the middle of a growth spurt and dried fast in a kiln. The wood would have been sprayed against the bark beetle and possibly been dipped into fungicide. This wood would be perfectly graded and comply with all standards. Nevertheless, I would not use wood that has been so badly mistreated to build a winter garden but be very concerned about the possibility of glass panels breaking, and the wood's low resistance to insects and fungi as well as toxic residues.
Nothing ever benefits from fanaticism, pretension and narrow-mindedness. To live in harmony with nature has to do with true appreciation and consideration and the same goes for wood as well.
Life has a better quality to it when we are able to live in homes which have furniture and floors made of natural wood. However, one has to cut down living trees. Is this the right thing to do?
Does the life of a tree start when the seed is sprouting or before, when the oak seed, beech nut or cembra nut or a winged seed falls off the tree? Or even earlier, when the seed is ripening on the mother tree? Maybe even before that, when the genetic information for the upcoming flower and seed production is being determined? Is it possible to say when exactly life begins? Grasping the mystery of trees leads us to many magical natural cycles.
As a living and active being, the tree pioneers into the dark world which we came from and will return to. We try to negate this underworld from our thoughts, maybe because it reminds us of our own mortality? Could this be one of the reasons why we don't like to think about death?
By penetrating this underground with its roots, the tree interacts and changes this world. Deeply anchored in the earth's darkest realms, the tree grows its trunk into one opposite element. It carries branches with needles or leaves, flowers and fruit upwards into the sky towards the light of the sun. An exact mirror image to the roots in the soil, the leaves and needles interact with light, air, wind and weather. Trees impact the physical and chemical levels by absorbing carbon monoxide and producing oxygen. It also affects the sensory world of humans, animals and plants by its form, color and sound.
Of what practical value is it for builders and buyers to know about the secret life of trees? From an ecological building point of view, we know that untreated wood is a breathing building material; it absorbs, retains and releases moisture. It makes contact with us humans via our senses. We perceive its color, form and the spirit which has worked it.
A piece of furniture or floor can have a calming, uplifting, joyous effect and supply us with energy. It also can be frustrating, worrying and weakening. Crucial here is the question: what has been done to the wood. How was it treated and worked with?
To harvest a tree doesn't mean to kill it. The falling of a mature tree is part of the natural cycle. The decay to humus is the basis of existence for the next generation.
This brings us to the conclusion:
Trees are living beings and they connect the divine air element with the earthy, dense and dark energies of the soil. It is possible to work with wood in ways where synthetic chemicals are not needed. Natural wood can last for hundreds of years and after its usage it still can be safely returned to nature. As ash and mulch it provides nutrients for the next generation of trees and the natural cycle closes.
If you are a mother looking for toys for your children, a builder, worker, architect, wood sawyer or forester in the forest, we all can work on this huge task from our point of view. By consciously working with nature, we enrich, enliven and keep her riches for our children. Embracing the gift of our forests is the easy way to bring the mystery of trees into our hearts. Enjoyment, fulfillment and finding our own mystery will be our reward.
"During and after finishing my forestry studies, I dedicated myself mainly to native forests and wood. The old wooden chimney became an important symbol of a real connection and friendship between man and tree." - Dr. Erwin Thoma
The relationship between man and tree has grown in understanding of one another over lengths of time as both learned how to cohabitate together very well. Together we can master most challenges and much of the traditional architecture that exists to this day is living proof of it. There are buildings which have endured centuries of wear and tear - some have even survived fires. They were never treated with toxic paints and preservatives such as the old Court Building in 'Suiz', built 700 years ago with untreated wood and still stands to this day.
Man relies on trees not only for building homes. We find examples of this symbiosis in nearly all areas of life, such as wooden bridges which connect two river banks. Their untreated posts have been standing in the water, often for centuries, without polluting the waters with toxic chemicals and without rotting away.
Due to its colour and texture, untreated wood furniture is highly individual and is always one of a kind. Wooden hand tools are sleek, tough, gracious and light. Wooden barrels play a significant role in perfecting the ripening process of the wine or cognac stored in them.
How did the old masters know? The ones who produced wooden musical instruments, without which we would have never heard such beautiful music?
Ever since we began collecting information about human life, we have found evidence of a strong bond between man and tree in the form of tools, buildings and other wooden items. Historical sources go back centuries and records show that the best times to harvest trees is always in the winter.
This has been mentioned throughout Chinese civilizations, Roman antiquity and medieval ship-building techniques until the beginning of the 20th century. Caesar and Napoleon, the Roman historical Plinius, the French, German and Austrian forestry commissions preferred that the time for harvesting wood be in winter, ideally when the moon was waning, just before the new moon in Capricorn. This happens to be around Christmas/ New Year every year.
The close study of these historical sources also brings to light another point of interest: besides the right timing of the harvest, the correct and thorough choice of wood type for the job required is of importance as well. Even the way the tree has grown and the different types of soil and other aspects have an influence on our selection process.
With the increasing use of chemical preservatives in the past century, man, the sorcerer's apprentice, has unfortunately forgotten about these traditional methods.
For most, it takes time to properly understand the wisdom such as the one Dr. Thoma's grandfather has passed on in his simple words. However, through Holz100, we hope to introduce the secrets of our mysterious forests and how to incorporate nature in an easy and healthy way into our daily lives. Irrespective of whether you are just from looking to buy some wooden toys, furniture, lay a wooden floor or build a wooden house, we hope to provide North America basic knowledge about wood and its products.
Wood harvested at the right time
For thousands of years, people have been harvesting wood according to lunar cycles and seasons which affect the quality of the wood. With the 'decreasing moon' (new moon), wood becomes particularly durable and resistant.
Not only can the trees themselves reach an age which exceeds ours by a hundredfold, the wood itself can also last unbelievable periods without damage and significant deterioration. Think of the Asian wooden temples which have survived not only centuries, but thousands of years. Built by Buddhist monks artfully out of mighty tree trunks, such human monuments reveal all the possibilities hidden in the forest.
But how is wood able to withstand the millennium of weathering unscathed?
Three things are responsible for especially durable wood quality. First, the proper selection of tree type, species, and state of maturity. Second, the harvesting of wood at the right time and third - the practice of ideal storage, drying and processing of wood. The introduction of moonwood will allow us to take a closer look, specifically, at the timing of the harvest.
The decrease of sap content in trees in correlation to the lunar cycle encouraged this particular practice of timber harvesting, which formed the central thread of history in the relationship between man and tree. From Julius Caesar, to Pliny the Elder, to Theophrast, we are told of the fact that timber was only cut before the new moon. The foresters of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance also practiced timber harvesting under the lunar cycle. This frequent emergence of moonwood harvesting in the records of history gives the subject itself a great weight, of course. However, the theory alone has not been scientifically tested nor proved until recently.
At one of the most prestigious, technological universities in Europe, "ETH Zurich" around the year 2003, a small research team worked on finding scientific proof for moonwood. Prof. Ernst Zürcher conducted a research project in which extensive various studies of interrelations between time rhythms and plants took place.
It has been observed that the source behavior of beans in water itself is not always the same, but oscillates with the lunar cycle. As the moon grows, the beans absorb more water and with decreasing moon level, they absorbed much less within the same time frame. The germination of seeds of different trees and plants was investigated afterwards for their behaviour under the rhythm of lunar phases. It was shown that the germination rate, germ rates, average height and height of the plants were related to the lunar phase in the duration of four months. A further investigation revealed that trees were in sync with the moon-driven tides of the oceans. When the moon increases, the growth rings become thicker. When the moon decreases, they become thinner again. The diameter of the trees become thicker and thinner in the rhythm of ebb and flow - only by a few hundredths of a millimeter but nevertheless, measurable.
However, the direct weathering tests on wood samples which were evaluated in the study at the ETH Zurich, is decisive proof of the influence of the moon on construction timber. Prof. Zürcher investigated the validity of these old tree felling rules and showed for the first time that moonwood is more durable and weather resistant than conventionally flaked wood.
In addition, he also explained an important part of his findings - the principle of action:
He found out that the behaviour of water in wood is something quite different than in others. The movement of water within the various capillary tubes of wood were subject to numerous physical influences. For example, water in the very fine capillary tubes can assume, for example, a gelatinous aggregate state and remain liquid to -15 ° C.
Moonwood, timber harvested with the decreasing moon, has more bound water in its interior. That is, when drying, it becomes more cohesive which makes the wood more dense, pressure-resistant and also resistant to penetrating fungi, against insects or wood-eating termites. The advantage of moonwood in density was 5-7% spread over several thousand samples. From a technical point of view, this is a significant improvement in quality compared to conventionally harvested wood.
It is not only the growth of the tree which depends on water. The moisture content attracts fungi and insects which potentially causes damage to wooden buildings and artifacts.
The question is how much moisture is left in the wood.
Below 20% moisture content, wood is protected from fungi and below 8-12%, it is protected from insects. This natural resistance is the basis of wood preservation without toxic chemicals and the secret behind the durability of wood buildings which have survived hundreds and sometimes thousands of years without damage. 'Natural wood protection' means to harvest the trees at the right time and dry it in ways which further protect it from insects and fungi.
Trees or fresh logs contain large amounts of water often weighing more than 50% of the trees' weight. Every piece of wood, no matter if it has been used for furniture, roof trusses, toys or buildings, contain only approx. 6-20% moisture content.
The old woodworkers say, "If you want quality building wood, the best way is to cut the trees and have them lying with their tops pointing downhill for a few weeks before you cut off the branches."
When a tree is cut down, it wants to procreate one more time. The sap moves through the channel and pipe system from the trunk into the branches to grow leaves and flowers. When the tree is lying with its top pointed downhill, gravity supports the flow as well, naturally draining the sap and leading to an evenly dried tree trunk.
We undertook the following experiment: One spring, when the trees were growing leaves and the sap was moving freely, I cut down a beech tree. I cut the trunk into two pieces and had both pieces laid on the ground, pointing downhill in opposite directions.
After a short time, the sap started to drop from both stems: the piece lying with the tree top facing downhill lost three times as much sap than the other one, which had the bottom part of the tree pointing downhill. This is not surprising and confirmed our expectations. This ideal way of drying wood naturally results in a better quality product.
Due to Holz100 technology, even large projects like hotels and multi-family residences can be built with solid wood. Holz100 offers fire safety, sound insulation, security and comfort at a level unmatched by normal building methods.
If one compares the end product of wood grown in its natural environment with wood grown in a monoculture, one can see the qualitative difference. A spruce grown in unnatural circumstances is inferior in quality and less durable compared to one which grew in its natural environment and conditions.
Taking this a step further, we advise to not use wood from monocultures in low-lying areas for jobs like winter gardens or glass facades. The demands on the frame are high and the wood must be stable and calm.
These insights are gleaned from Dr. Erwin Thoma's experience of processing many thousands of trees from the forest to the finished item. The formula is always the same: observe nature and act accordingly.
To consider the origin of the wood is not only relevant to the forest owner or other wood professionals but also to the end consumer. Once we are aware of this and finally start to question where the wood comes from, the seller will ask his supplier. Soon the sawmills and forester will be confronted and this will cause them to start sorting their wood accordingly and responsibly. The end result of all these efforts will be buildings, toys, furniture and other wooden items free of chemicals and toxins.
We and the next generation need to take this opportunity to build a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.
Dense Fiber Grows at High Altitudes
The correct choice of tree (according to what it is going to be used for later) and the right timing of the harvest are the two main criteria when working with wood in a natural way. Both measures are basic requirements for straight, stable and long-lasting wood.
The most important type of tree for building wood in Europe is the spruce. You find this fast-growing tree in lower-lying areas in nutrient-rich soil with growth rings that have up to 3 cm spacing between them. The same type of tree grown in higher altitudes produces a spacing of just a millimeter or even less between the yearly growth rings. This much finer structure has many advantages for building quality homes and furniture.
When looking at the distance of the growth rings, you can see if a tree has grown fast or slowly. The finer and more interwoven a fiber structure is, the more elastic, smoother, tighter and longer lasting is the fabric. The very fast-growing spruce in lower altitudes compare to the fine fibers of high-altitude spruce trees like jute does to silk.
For this reason, we only work with very fine fibre wood grown in the Alps (approximately 3,000 - 4,000 feet, 915 - 1220 meters above sea level) particularly when building projects with glass facades where the wood must not move or shrink.
The Natural Forest
A natural forest is another phenomenon which is important to the origin of the trees. Everywhere in the world, Mother Nature had a particular combination of trees in mind which perfectly suited the location and harmonized with the soil. This forest family was best suited to the climate zone and grew abundantly. We can still find natural tree families in untouched and remote forests.
Even though we are now being taught about the importance of natural woods as part of forestry studies, it was forestry people who, in the past two centuries, have changed large parts of the middle European woods.
A very one-sided economic approach contributed to the conversion from naturally mixed forests to monocultures, of mainly spruce trees. Until the 1970's, University classes taught that spruce trees were the 'bread and butter' of the forestry industry.
The healthiest and best-adapted natural forests which have emerged over thousands of years were cut down in just one or two generations. What has re-grown since then are not wonderful mixed woods but sickly monocultures of trees foreign to the area and soil conditions.
You won't find any pure coniferous forests below the 3000-4000 ft. (1100-1200 meters) altitude and certainly not pure spruce forests. Coniferous forests with spruce, pine and larch trees grow best at higher altitudes such as in the Alps and in north Europe.
It took the forestry industry decades of planting monocultures before they began to realize that these unnatural plantings had many disadvantages. In a monoculture, the forest floor is no longer penetrated and infiltrated with a diversity of roots and the mulch produces mostly acidic soil. Those trees then become more susceptible to insects infestation, fungus, storms and heavy snow load.
The further away from its natural environment a spruce has been planted, such as warmer, low-lying areas, the more susceptible it is to diseases and pests.
Forestry management in Austria has learned this over the past few years. Today, a conscious and aware forester would not plant monocultures of trees which might not even be native to the area. Quite the opposite, today monocultures are being converted back into mixed forests.
"I am not going to move into a block of glass, stone or concrete." Those were the words Albert Einstein used when he opted for a wood home, which still stands in the town of Caputh, close to Berlin.
"I still remember today how our science teacher explained the wondrous and magnificent way we humans breathe: if you were to spread open the pipe and bubble system of our lungs, it would be very thin and cover an area about the size of a football field. On one side of this thin membrane the oxygen-poor blood flows while on the other side oxygen-rich air streams past. The blood absorbs oxygen through this thin surface membrane by a process called osmosis.
Equally & simply, you can explain why wood is such a superior building material for a healthy and comfortable lifestyle. Similar to the human lungs, wood has an incredibly fine cellular system, consisting of thin membranes and inter-cellular spaces. Cell membranes themselves are a system of pores and fine tubules. The result of this delicate texture is the same as in our lungs: an incredibly large 'internal surface area'.
One cubic centimeter of cellulose (percentage wise the most important ingredient of wood) has the unimaginable internal surface area of approximately six million square centimeters. In other words, a game dice of cellulose has a surface area large enough (600 square meters) for a single family home - garden included. This fine structure has the effect of a sponge and acts like an air filter. Wood absorbs and filters harmful and smelly substances, retains and releases moisture and reduces electromagnetic smog inside the house.
Why do we perceive the atmosphere in an alpine cabin as particularly pleasant and cozy, whereas our hair stands up when we enter a brand-new building with sealed and laminated floors, painted wall and ceiling panels? Wood connects with us via our senses of smell, touch, taste and vision. It provides us with a sense of strength, comfort and safety.
A fundamental requirement of healthy homes is that our buildings act as a third skin. This requirement is ingeniously and wonderfully fulfilled by wood. One thing we need to consider though: skin is supposed to breathe and must not be clogged or 'sealed' by airtight coatings, paints and glues. Otherwise, wood fares similarly to the lungs of a heavy smoker!
Because untreated wood is able to breathe, it lowers and harmonizes concentration levels of other substances suspended in the air, like gases, steams and odors and keeps all levels closer to what we experience as healthy, comfortable and beneficial.
A three-hour experiment showed how 0.4m² of untreated wooden cladding per m³ room volume absorbed Formaldehyde from the atmosphere. Without airing the room, the Formaldehyde levels were reduced from 1.2 ppm (equivalent to the smoke of 25 cigarettes) to 0.1 ppm. This result equals the reduction of 1/12 of the original concentration!
For wood to participate in a healthy gas exchange and moisture balancing act in your home, it needs to be untreated, uncoated, unclogged, and preferably unglued."
- Dr. Erwin Thoma
Inventor & Founder of Thoma Holz100
Holz100 Canada Inc.