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  • Wood First - the Debate Continues

Wood First - the Debate Continues

Here David Hopkins, Wood for Good's Head of Communications, brings us up to date with news from the UK Green Building Council debate.

Well, the snow may have melted but the dust hasn’t settled around the Wood First campaign. The first of many debates and discussions around this theme took place last week at the Museum of London, courtesy of UK Green Building Council (UK GBC).

UK GBC had staged the debate to look at themes arising from the Wood First after a number of their members had raised the topic with them. It’s a popular topic of debate, if not always a popular idea!

To recap: we launched the Wood First campaign with a number of objectives. First and foremost, the idea was to raise the status of timber to being a First Choice, primary building material. With the development of ever more stunning, landmark timber buildings – from Murray Grove’s 9-storey Stadthaus and neighbouring Bridport House and surrounding Colville Estate, to Norwich Academy, exemplar schools developments and many, many others – it is unfair to consider timber as a second class building material.

In addition, the timber supply chain (from sustainably managed sources only) has a vital role to play in combating climate change. This is not just the view of the timber industry but has been noted and advised upon in numerous scientific reports for bodies such as the World Bank, UN, UNECE, and others over the past decade or more.

This is because, unlike almost any other product, the production phase of the timber supply chain is almost a mirror image, a reversal, of most other production processes. Trees ABSORB carbon dioxide and emit oxygen during their growth phase, requiring little more than sunlight and water to grow. At the same time they provide – or actively create – bio-diverse habitats for wildlife and ecosystem services. The ONS conservatively calculates ecosystem service value of English forests alone at £20 billion.

The carbon sequestered by the trees is stored in timber products while new trees are planted and grown to replace them in a continuous cycle leading to a net reduction in carbon emissions.

The processing and manufacturing side also require low energy inputs and therefore low carbon emissions. The amount of carbon captured and stored far outweighs that emitted during processing and transporting, even when covering huge distances across the world (see AHEC study link), meaning that on a cradle to gate perspective timber products arrive with a negative carbon balance.

As well as being enormously versatile, timber products then can hugely improve the embodied carbon content of a building. This is going to become ever important as time goes on – in 10 years it is estimated embodied carbon will account for 95% of the total carbon profile of most buildings. (RICS, Redefining Zero, 2011)

The Wood First campaign has focused on education and promotion to local authorities planning and sustainability departments, in order for them to consider these factors at early stages of each project which comes up for consideration in their area. By asking “have you considered wood” for this project, planners will force developers to take the issues of embodied carbon into account and know that they are creating the most sustainable communities possible. It also shows local authorities what is possible in using wood, and how time and cost savings can be achieved if timber is considered at the outset. It will also assist in resource efficiency – a greater use of timber means buildings can use lower amounts of other more energy-intensive materials.

Needless to say that not all sectors of the construction industry agree with our outlook and the UKGBC debate highlighted a number of points which need addressing – I have tried to capture the main ones which I managed to jot down, apologies if any are missing, but I will try to tackle each of these subjects at greater length in subsequent blog pieces:

  1. Effect on jobs and skills market: it was claimed that growth in timber construction would have negative impact on jobs and skills in UK construction. The example given was in Stadthaus where the suppliers brought a team of installers to do the job from Germany.

    This example was true. The expert team was brought in as this was the first time a tower block like this had been built in the UK. However, in order to increase capacity in the market that same team then spent the next two years offering workshops and onsite training to other, UK-based firms, in order that they would know how to do this in the future. Other notable landmark buildings – from Bridport House to Norwich Academy – have been built by mainstream UK contractors.
    The labour market claim is also entirely at odds with the latest figures from the Construction Skills Network report, the industry annual skills forecast, which shows that the number of people employed in the wood trades and timber construction related jobs is set to rise faster than any other occupation in construction during the next five years. The timber industry prides itself on its training and skills programmes and will certainly be seizing this opportunity to grow.

  2. BES 6001: there were a few points made in relation to this, first about different scores for different materials and about definition of responsible sourcing.
    I am afraid to say I have not had time to look fully into this, but it would seem odd if certified chain-of-custody timber was getting a lower score than other materials. BES 6001 is currently in consultation phase to update some of its processes and assumptions and the timber industry is fully engaged in the debate so will bring you more on this as and when it becomes clear.

  3. Fire: yes, this came up again despite the release of figures from DCLG last month which showed there is just a 1:57 ratio of fires in timber vs non-timber buildings. These figures include ‘buildings’ such as garden sheds and holiday chalets! The fact is, timber buildings are no more or less likely to catch fire than any other form of construction. Buildings are built to conform to (or exceed) regulations and standards. So long as this is the case the material is not relevant. Timber is seen favourably by many fire officers due to the fact it chars slowly and holds its structure for predictable lengths of time. For proof, please stop and consider what fire doors are made of and why this is.

  4. Embodied carbon, sequestered carbon and whole building LCA: this is where most of the debate took place and it is within these areas that more debate perhaps SHOULD take place in the industry. I have laid out above the basis of the sequestered and embodied carbon argument re timber and the timber supply chain. However, it was interesting to see other material sectors so vehemently opposed to sequestered carbon while simultaneously so in favour of whole life-cycle analysis. Surely, whole life-cycle analysis includes the processes at the Start of life for each material? In the case of timber, the growth of a tree, the creation of forest habitat, the sequestration of carbon dioxide in the tree(s), the storage then in timber products and the replanting / re-growth of new trees to continue the cycle ad infinitum.
    The timber industry fully agrees that whole life cycle analysis is the way forward. But, that must include the start of life and the benefits that can bring as well as all other parts of the cycle including end-of-life.The sequestered and embodied carbon debate I will come back to you in a further blog dedicated to that one specific issue and move on to the final point of the UKGBC debate.

  5. Role of local authorities: now this was really interesting and in many ways the crux of the debate. Should local authorities take a greater role in what materials should be used for buildings? In many ways, our Wood First rule envisages exactly that – although we have not gone so far as to draw up what that rule would fully look like or be worded – but is designed such that wood is only a first choice where feasible and not to the exclusion of other materials (we have always said Wood First, not Wood Only).
    This idea got to the audience more than any other with one even saying that building decisions should be left “to the experts”. When you look at the poor state of much of the UK building stock, with dreadful insulation, appalling sound proofing, and multiple sick building syndromes, it is hard to see who these experts might be.
    It should be remembered though that local authorities already have a strong role to play in choosing materials – in conservation areas for example, as well as in keeping with local plans. They also have an obligation toward sustainable outcomes.
    And, like it or not, they are still democratically accountable, unlike the construction industry!
    It remains the view of Wood for Good that local authorities are well placed to act as guardians of their local communities and have a valuable role to play. It is up to us as industry bodies to work and engage with them to demonstrate the benefits that aiming for the most sustainable outcomes can bring.

 I hope this has covered most of the issues raised during the evening – I’m going to try and cover all of the above at greater length in coming weeks and I look forward to the next rounds of debate in the Wood First campaign. 

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