Analysts have calculated that utilizing wood in 80% of new residential building projects in Europe alone would absorb 55 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). This would effectively halve the CO2 annual emissions caused by the construction industry in Europe. Meanwhile, supply chain issues, rising energy costs, and scarcity of materials highlight a need for the construction industry to shift to more sustainable, locally sourced building materials like wood.
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Resurgence in Wood for Construction
In the twentieth century, construction with load-bearing lumber was largely replaced with concrete and steel-based methods. This was a result of the need to build quickly, for example in Europe after the Second World War or in new megacities in developing countries, with on-site concrete casting and prefabricated steel framing significantly speeding up construction projects.
Wood was also maligned somewhat due to the fire risk it posed. Large nineteenth-century and pre-war buildings made with dry, often over-exposed wood frames were a factor in a number of large-scale and tragic fires in built-up cities in the early twentieth century.
However, recent years have started to see a shift in this trend. Increasing climate concerns are putting pressure on the construction industry to transition toward more sustainable practices. This is not just pressure coming from public perception, but new sustainability rules and legislation are also being passed around the world which developers will have to respond to.
For example, in Finland, the government has set a target of using wood in 45% of all new public buildings by 2025. This is three times the ratio of wood-framed public buildings built in 2019.
New techniques for timber milling and lumber-based construction are also opening up new construction applications for the traditional material.
Also, modular building methods based on concrete and steel designs are being translated for wood. This is enabling developers to build sustainable timber framed buildings at the scale and speed that concrete and steel allowed 70 years ago.
With these new and adapted techniques, wood used in construction is even more sustainable than ever. This is because lumber in modular buildings can be readily taken apart and reused in other configurations, either on the same site or elsewhere.
The Importance of Sustainable Forestry
Globally, land-use changes are resulting in net deforestation. Trees are being felled faster than they are planted.
Deforestation is primarily caused by land-use changes motivated by agriculture – land for cattle grazing, soybean farms mostly for animal feed, or palm oil farms are main culprits. Deforestation for firewood to heat and cook, or from illegal logging are also major contributors.
If construction projects are turning to wood for sustainability, the source of that wood is important.
Many countries now enforce sustainable forestry practices that will ensure the future supply of timber to the construction industry.
Wood materials are available worldwide for construction, both from monoculture tree plantations and from native, biologically diverse forests.
Sustainably managing production forests with techniques like partial clearance and replanting not only provides the construction industry with environmentally responsible alternatives to concrete and steel but also provides the planet’s atmosphere with a more natural and energy-efficient decarbonizing technology: photosynthesis.
Wood in 85 Social Housing Units in Barcelona
The 85 Social Housing Units project in Barcelona, Spain, employs wood extensively as a way to ensure sustainability.
The freestanding structure has almost 6,860 sq ft of floor space with another 1,230 sq ft courtyard inside. The project used lumber in order to achieve a flexible structure of tatami rooms inspired by Japanese vernacular traditions.
To further drive sustainability, the architects reduced the initial lumber requirement from approximately 17,300 m2 to 8,300 m2 by optimizing the efficiency of the load-bearing structure.
The project was recognized as a finalist in the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award, a European Union prize for contemporary architecture.
Read the Interview Here: EU Mies Award Finalist: Peris+Toral Arquitectes’ 85 Social Housing Units
World’s Tallest Residential Timber Frame Building
The Rocket & Tigerli building designed for Winterthur, Switzerland, recently gained international acclaim as the world’s tallest residential building made with a wooden structure.
The architects relied on an innovative modular building technique adapted from concrete construction to create the 100 m tall tower in the residential development.
Strong but lightweight lumber will be used as a core material inside concrete beams, which significantly reduces the weight of the construction as well as the amount of concrete required.
At current estimates, the building is expected to be responsible for between 30% and 40% less CO2 emissions as a result of this innovative lumber framing technique.
Read the Interview Here: Creating the World’s Tallest Wooden Structured Building
Will Wood Come Back to Stay?
By many estimates, the construction industry as a whole contributes around 40% of the planet’s entire CO2 emissions. With a rapidly rising population and the need for critical housing and infrastructure worldwide, new construction is still going to be necessary for the coming years.
But this large share of the responsibility for emissions means that a sustainable transformation in the industry would have a significant impact on the world’s shared struggle against climate catastrophe.
Utilizing wood as an alternative to concrete and steel will go some way toward achieving this potential impact. Modern techniques, innovation, and commitment to sustainability could transform building for the better – for everybody.
References and Further Reading
Baily, S. (2022). Creating the World’s Tallest Wooden Structured Building. [Online] AZO Build. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8547
---. (2022). EU Mies Award Finalist: Peris+Toral Arquitectes’ 85 Social Housing Units. [Online] AZO Build. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=8493
Davies, B. (2022). Researchers Point Out Wooden Buildings as an Effective Sustainable Alternative. [Online] AZO Build. Available at: https://www.azobuild.com/news.aspx?newsID=23258
Woodard, A.C., and H.R. Milner (2016). Sustainability of timber and wood in construction. Sustainability of Construction Materials. Woodhead Publishing. doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-100370-1.00007-X.