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Sat, 24 October 2020

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Sustainability and safety should go hand in hand – ignorance is an enemy of both

David Hopkins, Managing Director, TTF (Timber Trade Federation) | Wood for Good

4 min read

Whilst we agree with Kieran Mullan MP that sustainability should not come before safety, if we focus first on ensuring truly quality buildings, there is no reason we cannot achieve both.

Since the tragedy of Grenfell tower, everyone involved in construction supply chains has had safety front and centre in their minds.

Doubtless, these concerns were also what motivated Dr Kieran Mullan MP this week to write that “sustainability in construction should never be put before the safety of residents”.

It is unlikely that anybody would disagree with him. Safety is paramount in any building.

However, this focus on the timber construction sector alone to make this point – to the exclusion of any other material examples – is disingenuous and potentially misleading.

As he rightly points out, timber construction has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years as new products and new methods of construction have enabled its use in a wider variety of applications and building types.

Part of this is down to its sustainable and low-carbon nature: trees absorb carbon as they grow and store it as wood, making timber products a carbon store rather than a carbon emitter. On top of this, thanks to its strength-to-weight ratio and ease of use, it takes very little energy to shape, cut and join. Therefore, it is possible to manufacture high-quality, high-performance yet low-carbon buildings, using a fraction of the energy inputs required for other materials.

As a result, timber has become one of the leading materials for the ‘offsite construction’ boom, attracting investment across the UK.

Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change recently advocated for a greater use of timber in construction if the UK is to meet its Net Zero targets for emissions reduction.

Government statistics put the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings as contributing 45% of total UK carbon emissions – so reducing this total is a top priority and not something that can be avoided. Timber is very much part of the solution.

However, Dr Mullan is right to point out the dangers inherent in utilising new materials and methodologies, particularly in a construction sector which – as the Hackitt review points out – is inherently conservative, and which requires far greater oversight, responsibility and skills-training. The timber industry has been at pains to point this out to designers and contractors alike, developing the ‘Structural Timber Association “STA Assure” Scheme’ to ensure appropriate fire-safe onsite practices, competencies and compliance. This being complemented with an extensive timber system testing program to prove beyond doubt the performance of structural timber in fire.

However, we believe that a renewed focus on the end objective of creating better Quality buildings – in terms of sustainability, safety, performance, longevity, health and well-being - should be prioritised over a focus on single materials. This is the same goal for us all. But, these aspects will only be achieved through design (regardless of material) and ensuring that buildings are actually built to meet that design.

Introducing height restrictions for timber construction will not prevent fires happening, nor will banning sustainable materials and condemning people to a high-carbon future. It will only happen through education, collaboration, regulation and oversight. Indeed, a simple ban on combustible materials could make the situation worse by encouraging complacency over responsibility through the supply chain.

The timber industry supports whole-heartedly all the recommendations of the Hackitt review, along with many other measures such as sprinklers, multiple escape routes and so on. Timber is no enemy of safety, quite the opposite.

It does make a good scapegoat for a lot of people’s pre-conceived notions about construction and safety, however.

Finally, it is always worth pointing out that the Grenfell tragedy that has – rightly – sparked this renewed focus on fire safety, was a concrete building with barely any timber inside it. It was caused by an electrical fault – just as were some of the timber frame fires Dr Mullan cites – causing flames to burn through a plastic window frame and reach the aluminium plastic cladding outside.

The only components which were praised by the fire brigade reports for doing their job properly and withstanding the fire were the timber fire-doors in some of the corridors.

So, Dr Mullan, we would agree that sustainability should not come before safety. But, if we focus first on ensuring truly quality buildings, there is no reason we cannot achieve both.

For more information please visit: www.ttf.co.uk

Read the most recent article written by David Hopkins, Managing Director, TTF (Timber Trade Federation) - From tackling climate change to increasing employment, British forestry provides social, economic and environmental benefits to society

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