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Wed, 5 August 2020

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For a green recovery, let’s build back better – in wood

For a green recovery, let’s build back better – in wood

Stirling Award-winning timber frame housing by architects Mikhail Riches, photography: Tim Crocker

Wood for Good

4 min read Member content

It is up to all of us who care about our legacy to our children and grandchildren to turn the talk about re-building the country through a new Green Economy into a reality, by metaphorically and literally building back better – in wood.

What better moment to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them in England and consider how we can do them better?

Let’s take housing, where three government policies come together with profound implications: the goal of increasing building to a ‘target of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s’; Brexit; and the 2050 Net Zero CO2 emissions law.

The target looks quite a challenge, with just 178,000 completions registered last year, and only 151,020 starts.

This year, because of Covid-19, completions are likely to be significantly fewer. And, of course, the rapid approach of Brexit is likely to have a significant effect on the availability of the already short supply of on-site skilled construction workers.

Yet getting the construction sector back on its feet is vital to the post-Covid recovery. One way to solve the problem is to encourage the more widespread adoption of modern methods of construction (MMC) – what used to be called off-site manufacture – to produce homes precision-made in factory conditions to be assembled on-site with minimum labour requirements.

Wood is ideally suited to MMC, providing tried and trusted timber frame technology, capacity, excellent thermal efficiency and unmatched sustainability.

It’s a solution that’s widely used in Scotland, where around 70% of new homes are built in timber, compared to less than 20% in England.

Wood is ideally suited to MMC, providing tried and trusted timber frame technology, capacity, excellent thermal efficiency and unmatched sustainability.

It was encouraging to see a presentation given last autumn at the Institution of Structural Engineers by Professor Gideon Henderson, one of the advisors on the government’s Net Zero 2050 report and currently Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

He explained how the government recognized that there would be a number of sectors of the economy, such as aviation, shipping and industry, which would be unable to achieve zero carbon by 2050. Consequently, government would need to rely on carbon capture to meet the goal.

While new carbon capture technologies are under development to shoulder the bulk of this burden, he identified greater use of wood in construction as one simple and largely cost-free way of capturing carbon. Let’s have more wood buildings, he suggested.

Building in wood from sustainably-managed forests contributes to reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere in three ways: by carbon capture in the growing forest carbon sink; by carbon capture in the increasing carbon store of wood products; and by substitution for other, more CO2-intensive materials, such as steel and concrete.

Building in wood from sustainably-managed forests contributes to reducing CO2 levels

According to the European Commission, ‘Meta-analyses of the average impact of using wood instead of concrete suggest an average reduction of 2.1 tons of CO2 per ton of wood products used’.

This is a message that’s taken up by the Committee on Climate Change, ‘Using wood in construction provides a long-term store for carbon in the environment… avoided emissions from the production of cement and bricks are an additional advantage.’

Some figures have been put round this in a recent report by Bangor University, which found that ‘using timber frames rather than masonry can reduce carbon embodied emissions by around 20% per building, while when CLT is chosen in place of concrete structures, the effect is even greater, with carbon embodied emissions reduced by around 60%.’

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that in the executive summary of its 2019 report, UK Housing; Fit for the Future?, the Committee on Climate Change makes a specific recommendation to government: ‘Develop new policies to support a substantial increase in the use of wood in construction’.

The world has been turned upside down by Covid-19, pushing the immediacy of global heating into the background.

But it is up to all of us who care about our legacy to our children and grandchildren to turn the talk about re-building the country through a new Green Economy into a reality, by metaphorically and literally building back better – in wood.

For more on how using wood from sustainably-managed forest can help reduce CO2 emissions, click here

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