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Wood: The eco-friendly alternative to bricks and mortar

Wood: The eco-friendly alternative to bricks and mortar

Wood for Good

7 min read Partner content

MPs and peers will learn about the benefits using wood to build homes at a parliamentary event tomorrow, hosted by industry body Wood For Good.

We may not think much about the benefits of constructing buildings out of wood rather than brick, yet 150,000 people work in the timber supply chain in the UK which is worth around £9bn.

Many of those jobs are located in rural areas providing significant employment and investment to these often deprived areas.

Today parliamentarians from all parties will meet with academics and industry experts to learn more about timber’s role in a sustainable built environment and how using more wood can help de-carbonise construction.

The built environment currently accounts for approximately 50% of UK emissions. The majority of this through emissions associated with operational energy in use, but an increasing share through emissions from manufacturing and production of materials and products for construction.

Timber offers a way of rapidly reducing emissions, both from buildings in use and from emission associated with material production.

Among those attending today’s parliamentary event is David Hopkins from Wood For Good, the timber industry’s promotion and engagement campaign.
“The industry is quite a fragmented supply chain in terms of its representation,” he explains.

“There are a number of different trade organisations for different points on the supply chain. That weakens the voice of the timber industry so Wood For Goodis there to promote the whole supply chain. Our stakeholders range from the forestry sector at one end through to timber frame manufacturers at the other end.”

Wood For Goodruns a number of different activities to engage the construction market including architects, contractors, builders and developers.

That includes CPD courses and education classes, developing online learning tools so that people know how to specify wood and how to use it and build with it.

“One of the main areas we have been working on is sustainability and timber’s suitability as a low carbon industry,” says Hopkins.

Timber frame is used in roughly 70% of all new build in Scotland but only around 15% in England.

Many of the new academies and other schools under Building Schools for Future and Priority School program and other public buildings have been built in timber due to the benefits of speed and sustainability and improvements in whole-life costs.

Timber boasts significantly lower energy needs in production than other materials, lowering primary energy demand for products and buildings and lowering the embodied carbon content.

For example, producing steel requires 24 times more energy than timber, while concrete can emit 140kg carbon dioxide per cubic metre – timber absorbs one tonne carbon dioxide per cubic metre.

Timber also has excellent thermal insulation properties compared to other mainstream materials: five times better than concrete; ten times better than brick; 350 times better than steel. This increases the energy efficiency of finished buildings and lowers energy bills of occupants.

So why is timber frame almost a default building material in Scandinavia and in Scotland but not in England?

Hopkins says there are a number of different reasons.

“The incidence of timber frame building is higher where you have got a strong forest cover and forest culture.

“Across the United States and Canada building with wood is second nature. Similarly in Scandinavia it is commonplace though it is the States that has the highest number.

“You also have to look at the market structure for building. Timber frame has a huge advantage in the speed of the build, usually 30% quicker, and this brings with it a financial advantage. If you are a social housing developer, for example, you want to build fast and start renting out to get a return on your investment.

“The private housing market on the other hand, is structured differently.

“Over the past ten years in particular we have seen housing companies who it is in their interest to build quite slowly. They don’t want to build something unless they have sold it in advance.

“That has affected the way they build and the development of timber frame in England. That’s changing now, with the upturn in the market and the need to deliver units quickly.”

While social housing developers in the UK now overwhelmingly use timber frame, there remains what Hopkins calls “a culture of ‘brick and block’ in the construction industry”.

“People talk in terms of investing in bricks and mortar, and that traditional look and feel of houses,” he says.

“It is interesting to note that a large number of timber framed houses that are built in Britain are covered with a skin of brick.

“That is changing and some of the bigger house builders now have their own timber frame divisions and are seeing growth from timber frame developments. Now that the urgency has returned to the market, there is a big delivery problem with a lot of other materials.

“Brick and block have capacity issues and now that they need to build faster a lot are building quickly with timber frame. A lot of our members have seen demand shoot up and profit return to their business.”

Hopkins welcomes last week’s Budget announcement that a new garden city with an initial 15,000 homes will be built at Ebbsfleet in Kent.

He points out that previous “eco-town” schemes, such as the one in Bicester where the first residents are expected to move into their new homes in spring 2015,have made wide use of timber frame.

“In Bicester, what is making that town “eco” is that they have taken into account issues of embodied carbon when considering the true emissions associated with the manufacture of the products going into these buildings.

“As a result they have chosen timber frame for an entire lot of houses being built there. What was very worrying in the Budget was there was no quality of assurance for building performance – that’s something we want to ram home. Just because you have to build quickly does not mean you have to compromise on quality or environmental standards. That is a key message.”

For MPs in rural areas, another advantage to encouraging timber frame build is that it supports local jobs – a message that will resonate even in Downing St.

“Stewart Milne Group has a fully automated, state of the art manufacturing facility near Witney, Oxfordshire (near the Prime Minister’s constituency), for example, and they have invested a lot of money there, as well as in their original plant near Aberdeen.” says Hopkins.

“Trees aren’t grown in cities so a lot of the jobs are in more rural areas.

“Saw milling and timber processing tend to happen close to the sites where the trees are grown. We are in the top ten manufacturing industries in the UK.

“The timber frame manufacturers and joinery companies are significant employers in their own areas and there is a lot of investment going in.”

For example, James Jones & Sons Ltd has invested over £45m over the past ten years into its state of the art manufacturing plant in Lockerbie, while BSW has invested around £70m over the past five years into new plant in Scotland, England and Wales, increasing its workforce from 800-1,000. It has plans to continue this level of investment in the UK over the coming five years.

“There are a lot of misconceptions, ignorance and prejudice about timber in construction,” says Hopkins.

Tomorrow’s event will allow the industry to demonstrate how well it compares in terms of sustainability, cost and speed of build with the traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ approach to building.

Wood for Goodwill be publishing a full inventory of lifecycle assessment data to highlight the role that timber can play on Monday April 7th. This will be a free resource for all sustainability professionals in the construction industry.

Please visit for more details.

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