With research revealing that, despite positive perceptions of timber, many MPs still harbour misconceptions about its benefits, Wood for Good assembled a team of construction experts to debate the subject in the House of Commons.
The event was designed to inform policy makers about the potential for increased timber use to lead to emissions reductions and was attended by MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum.
Chaired by Jess McCabe, features editor at leading social housing magazine Inside Housing, our expert panel featured:
To open the session, Jess McCabe asked the ASBP’s Newman about the challenges facing the increased use of timber in the UK, not least competition from other sustainable construction products.
Newman explained that a major issue stems from the fact there has never been a serious industry-wide look at material resources in construction. He added that the regulatory framework and Code for Sustainable Homes did not encourage good decision making about sustainable construction methods.
In response to a question about why sustainable construction emerged as a low priority for MPs when questioned about the need for house-building, Wood for Good’s Dave Hopkins, commented that sustainability was often mistakenly seen as an “expensive add-on”. He made the point that, as a light-weight material requiring low energy to produce, sustainability is integral to timber, with wooden buildings also often achieving high levels of thermal efficiency.
Charlie Law, of major contractor BAM, argued that timber’s qualities went beyond sustainability to include social and economic benefits. He suggested timber compared favourably with other materials on both of these fronts, noting that steel was often mined on the other side of the world.
Stewart Dalgarno from the Stewart Milne Group, explained there was potential to reduce costs in increasing the use of home-grown wood. He revealed that, currently, the company is reliant on imports to build its timber homes and that he is working with the government to develop mill technology and supply chains to drive the price of timber down.
Baroness Maddock commented that timber faced negative perceptions from builders who weren’t familiar with it and so didn’t promote it. David Renwick, of Ocean Housing - which made a transition to timber construction 10 years ago - explained that is was a shortage of traditional building skills in the UK that led his firm to look at alternatives.
Wood for Good’s Dave Hopkins added that the UK is leading the way on timber construction with many new academy schools being built with timber because of the time savings associated with timber construction. Renwick agreed that this speed of construction also leads to significant cost savings, with less time on site meaning smaller bills.
The Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, Roger Williams, argued that large house developers needed to be convinced of the benefits of timber. Others added that pre-fabricated products still carried some negative connotations and concerns over fire risks and timber’s durability in extreme weather still persisted. BAM’s Law said he felt that there was beginning to be a change in attitude. Dalgarno noted that the financial downturn hadn’t helped because people had ‘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.
Participants then focused on where innovation in the industry was being driven and discussed the best ways of getting the message across to those making planning decisions in local authorities.
Charlie Law noted that people built according to what was in the regulations, stressing that there needed to be a change in these to promote sustainable construction materials.
Hopkins explained that for a local authority to adopt a legal preference for any one construction material over another would risk legal challenges, however there is an increase in ‘fabric first’ policies which favour timber.
The group had a strong consensus on the need to emphasise the sustainability of timber: Angela Smith MP called for political consensus and leadership on the issue, while Dalgarno argued that the government should promote a fabric first policy in building regulations and a stimulus to promote low energy and low carbon homes.
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.
Sir Robert Smith 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 that the UK had in abundance and that it should be used as much as possible. He added that growth in the sector – already worth £9bn industry- would provide a boost to the rural economy and to industry in areas such as the north of England and Scotland.