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Timber’s role in a sustainable built environment

Timber’s role in a sustainable built environment

Wood for Good

8 min read Partner content

Wood for Good, the UK’s wood promotion and sustainability campaign, held a recent policy roundtable event in parliament, to discuss the use of timber as a sustainable construction material.

The session began with a presentation of polling data highlighting the attitudes of MPs towards the use of timber in construction. Of note in the polling results were that:

• Initial perceptions of timber construction varied but there was a tendency to describe timber buildings as sustainable or environmentally friendly;
• There was a majority agreement that timber builds could be faster, yet it was apparent many respondents knew little about the size of the industry;
• Almost three quarters (72 per cent) felt the wood used in the UK was sustainably sourced, but just two fifths (43 per cent) agreed that a four per cent increase in forest cover could store over 10 per cent of UK’s total emissions by 2050;
• When considering the importance of different elements that should apply to new housing schemes, the cost element outweighed any considerations of the speed of construction or environmental sustainability of the raw materials, which tended to be least prioritised;
• Almost nine in ten (89 per cent) felt the timber industry supported the rural economy, while 76 per cent agreed it reduced emissions and 70 per cent that it preserved biodiversity.

Jess McCabe, chair of the event and features editor of Inside Housing and Sustain magazine, initiated discussion on the poll findings and asked Gary Newman of the Alliance for Sustainable Housing Products whether timber was just one of many sustainable construction products vying to raise its profile.

Environmental sustainability

In response to a question on why environmental sustainability was a low priority for building in the MP poll, Dave Hopkins, Wood for Good, commented that there was confusion in that the sustainability argument was seen as an “expensive add-on”. In fact sustainability was an integral aspect of timber construction sector he said, from the forestry angle to the fact that wood was a “light weight and low energy to produce material”. The manufacturing was relatively low energy, he added, and wooden buildings were “thermally efficient.”

Though some material was imported the value added was in the UK, Hopkins said, adding this amounted to a £9bn industry. He also said the UK was leading the way on timber construction; many new academy schools were being built with timber because of the reduced speed they took to build, he explained.

John White, Timber Trade Federation (TTF), stressed that in making the case for timber it was important to highlight how the trees themselves were sustainably produced. Since trees sucked carbon out of the atmosphere and stored it, he added: “timber was the greenest construction material known to man.”

Charlie Law, BAM, argued sustainability was not just about the environment but that there was a social and economic side too – he suggested timber compared favourably with other materials on both of these fronts, noting steel was often mined on the other side of the world.

Stewart Dalgarno from the Stewart Milne Group, a house builder and timber frame manufacturer, explained there was potential to reduce costs in increasing the use home-grown wood. At the moment the company was reliant on imports to build its timber homes. He added he was working with the government and stakeholders to develop mill technology and supply chains to drive the price of timber down.

Biomass

On cost, Anne McGuire MP (Lab, Stirling), chair of the all-party group on the wood panel industry said she had been looking at the competitiveness of the UK market, which she said was partially impacted because of the effect of biomass and subsidies. She asked if the subsidy for biomass might be skewing the market in terms of timber prices. She added there was a lack of awareness that the biomass subsidy had this sort of impact.

On this point there was strong agreement. Baroness Maddock (Lib Dem) pointed to concerns at the United Nations with what was going on with biomass. Dalgarno also argued that it was about getting the maximum value out of wood rather than turning it into wood pellets for biomass. It was good to promote renewable and low carbon technology but, he added, as a homebuilder putting investment in a good fabric to save energy should be a priority.

Carbon reduction and renewables

Angela Smith MP (Lab, Penistone and Stocksbridge), member of the rural services all-party group, felt there was a tension between renewable targets on the one hand and carbon reduction targets on the other. She argued consideration of a renewables target seemed to screen out consideration of the other. Dalgarno felt it was about striking the right balance.

John White of TTF explained how “allowable solutions” (the government’s scheme to promote zero-carbon homes) didn’t yet allow for the material benefit of timber to be a viable solution for reducing carbon.

Perception of timber

Anne McGuire MP commented that in Scotland there seemed to have been a fairly sudden switch to timber construction, and asked why this was the case. Baroness Maddock explained the problem was often a negative perception of timber construction from builders who weren’t familiar with it so didn’t promote it.

Timber in construction

David Renwick, Ocean Housing, a company that 10 years ago made a transition to timber construction, said that the reason they did so was largely because of a skills shortage. He said ten years ago it was difficult to find anyone to lay a brick, and so that pushed them to look at alternative methods.
Renwick said on the survey results that respondents hadn’t made the association between cost and speed: “the biggest saving is the speed” he said, noting reduced construction times meant reduced costs.

A key factor to promote such constructions was to emphasise that the lifetime and future maintenance costs would be lower than they otherwise would be. Sir Robert Smith MP (Lib Dem, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) replied that was all well and good if an accountant was buying a home, but what about the average the house buyer; do they go beyond the bottom line?

Roger Williams MP (Lib Dem, Brecon and Radnorshire) made the point that it was the big developers that needed to be convinced as they were the ones who actually built the houses. Baroness Maddock added the surveyors and banks also put people off from doing anything that was “non-traditional.”

Market penetration

Why is the penetration in the market not deeper than it is, asked McGuire?
There was strong agreement there was a negative perception of timber in construction. Others added there were negative connotation with “pre-fabs” and concern over fire risks and durability in extreme weather. Law felt there was beginning to be a change in attitude and Dalgarno noted the financial downturn hadn’t helped because people “reverted to type” and went for the cheapest option. However in the last 18 months there had been a substantial increase in orders, he explained.

There was some further discussion about the aesthetics of timber clad homes. Participants noted that this often deteriorated, however treatments were available to tackle this.

Charlie Law noted that people built according to what was in the regulations so he stressed there needed to be a change in these to promote sustainable construction materials.

Hopkins was disappointed with the Ebbsfleet garden city development as there had been no announcement to say that it would be driven by quality or environmental performance. He later outlined the growth of wood construction in local authorities, saying how a council in London, when building a new wood construction, waived the obligation on renewable energy due to the amount of carbon the building itself sequestered and stored. He explained that though legal preference for any one material over another risked legal challenge, there was an increase in “fabric first” policies.

Conclusion

There was strong consensus on the need to emphasise the sustainability of timber: Angela Smith MP called for political consensus and leadership on the issue; Gary Newman talked of the “massive untapped sustainability win in using more timber” especially UK grown timber.

Dalgarno stressed there should be “fabric first” policies in building regulations; that all forms of carbon reduction should be supported; and there be a stimulus to promote low energy and low carbon homes.

Sir Jim Paice MP argued that renewable subsidies were acting to skew the market and urged there be more thinking on how policy actually impacted on markets. McGuire said there should be better access to information on timber builds.

Sir Robert Smith MP concluded “that you can rely on markets up to point but that legislation has to drive the use of materials”. Renwick stressed an essential element of the debate was to share best practice in the industry.

Charlie Law said timber was one of few resources the country had in abundance and that it should be used as much as possible. He added growth in the sector would be a boost to the rural economy and to industry in areas such as the north of England and Scotland.

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