Why timber and why should it be now?

If you love the idea of timber-frame housing, you’re not alone, as Gavin Tadman, from the Time for Timber campaign, launched in September, explains…

WITH the announcement, just a few days ago, of the UK government’s ten-point plan (here) to reach net zero by 2050, the role of the construction industry in helping the country hit its target has come into sharp focus.

With this sector contributing anything up to 39 per cent of global carbon emissions (according to the World Green Building Council, here), it is clear that something has to change.

The Time for Timber (here) campaign was launched in September to support the Structural Timber Association’s sustainability agenda (here) in raising awareness of timber and encouraging builders to consider its use in their future plans.

Timber’s credentials as a construction material have been known since the earliest structures were built in the UK.

This is especially relevant to housing, where Scotland leads the way (as noted here) among the home nations in its use of timber frames.

Worldwide, there have been some interesting developments in the use of structural timber elements, such cross-laminated timber and glulam: from sports stadia and tall buildings rising up to 85m, to a plethora of schools and commercial buildings, right through to (at the time of its construction in 2017 – as reported, here) the largest load-bearing timber structure in the world – a development of 141 flats in Hackney, east London. 

Search engine, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is said to have even drawn up plans (see here) for a timber city in Toronto, at the same time investing in a factory to achieve this, whilst a ‘timber city in Helsinki’ is reportedly (here) currently under construction.

These developments have given designers and engineers permission to consider the use of timber as an alternative to concrete and steel.

We are all aware that trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. When trees are harvested, the carbon remains stored in the timber until the end of its physical life; roughly one tonne of carbon per metre cubed.

While the carbon is safely stored in the timber product, such as the frame, walls and doors, more trees are planted, absorbing and storing carbon as they grow. Every time one tree is harvested, another five are planted to replace it. 

If we look at the current housing targets, it’s widely thought (here) that we need 300,000 homes a year in the UK. It’s been calculated that were we to build those homes in timber frame, we would actually have six million tonnes of carbon stored.

If we were to build those in timber frame, we would actually have six million tonnes of carbon stored (read more, here). That’s why it’s so important that we should consider timber frame as the main building process for house building.

With the UK government talking about the need for carbon storage and a circular economy to reach its targets – as well as the drive to “build, build, build”, as the Prime Minister put it (here) – then the planting of trees and increased use of timber in construction can be seen to provide solutions for both the housing crisis and the environmental challenges it brings. Timber as a carbon store is the true ‘net zero hero’. 

Another important aspect of the Time for Timber campaign is to address the concerns of the insurance sector.

From the conversations that have arisen since the start of the Time For Timber campaign, when it comes to insuring projects that involve timber, concerns about fire combustibility and vulnerability to water damage are being addressed by efforts (as can be read here) to educate and reassure the construction insurance sector as to the benefits of timber. 

If managed in the right way, timber can be considered no more of a risk than any other building material. The Structural Timber Association has embarked for many years on a continuous improvement programme, addressing concerns about fire resistance capability of timber in construction.

These programmes are devised to make sure that the design, manufacture and installation processes are correct (here). This is all encompassed in the STA Assure programme, with all members of the Structural Timber Association required to adhere to it (here).

It is clear the positive benefits that the increased use of timber can bring to the economy, climate change and achieving net zero.

Now is the time for timber.

Gavin Tadman is managing director of ‘full service marketing agency’, CIB Ltd and a member of the Time For Timber advisory panel

Photo: Cross-laminated timber for the frame of a factory-made house, courtesy the Structural Timber Association