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  • The future timber house: sustainable, adaptable and resilient

The future timber house: sustainable, adaptable and resilient

Globally, the threat of climate change and the struggle to manage non-recyclable products means sustainability needs to be at the forefront of everybody’s minds. Engineering, innovation and forward-thinking will each play their part in defining our future housing policies, in turn helping to design for inevitable climate change while also minimising and slowing down its effects.

It’s a material world

One way to combat climate change is to choose construction materials that are low-carbon, a carbon store, reusable or recyclable, creating a circular economy. Recent reports show that materials such as cement in concrete contribute up to 8% of total global carbon emissions. Therefore, choosing materials like timber, which sequesters carbon, as a primary construction material helps the fight against carbon emissions. Materials such as concrete and steel will continue to be used but using timber as part of a hybrid structure can help to offset the negative effects.

Vancouver’s Terrace House, designed by Shigeru Ban, is a stunning example of hybrid timber on a grand scale. Due for completion in 2020, the 19-storey apartment block is set to be the tallest hybrid timber structure in the world and will be constructed from locally-sourced wood, concrete and glass. Mass timber was chosen for its sustainable and renewable credentials. Building in a city the developer struggled to find land, a common issue in urban areas, so building up was the logical answer. An intriguing geometric design, the timber used in the tower will be behind a glass exterior, removing the need for treatment over the years.

Ride the tide

Flooding is a huge issue for our heavily-populated island and as the ice caps continue to melt, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed, especially for future housing. Mortgage lenders don’t want to lend, developers don’t want to develop, and insurers don’t want to provide insurance. It’s four years since Storm Desmond caused chaos, particularly across Cumbria, Lancashire and the Scottish Borders. More than 5,000 homes were flooded, many of which were left inhabitable. Cue Flood Re, a re-insurance scheme introduced by the Government which helps households at the highest risk of flooding keep their premiums down.

So, what can be done for building in areas prone to flooding? The Norfolk Broads is notorious for flooding but that didn’t prevent Platform 5 Architects from building a client’s home there. A stick-built timber frame superstructure was chosen for its lightweight yet high strength-to-weight ratio, its ease and speed of assembly and its environmental benefits. Built on top of a dry deck, the house is raised on piles with galvanised steel ground beams mounted on top to accommodate changing water levels.

For a more unusual approach, the Redshank is a spaceship-like structure located in the flat coastal landscape near Clacton-on-sea in Essex. Perched on three elliptical steel legs to raise it above the floodwater and painted red as a nod to its namesake of the common redshank bird, it sits on a concrete raft foundation. The superstructure is made from cross-laminated timber (CLT), light enough to be supported by the steel legs and forms the floor, walls and roof, with no need for any interior decoration. It’s clad in non-hazardous and biodegradable cork, adding to the environmental benefits of using a low embodied carbon material such as CLT. Though the design may not to be everybody’s taste, it’s a structure that works.

The rise of the micro-home

Lack of land availability is already an issue in the UK and as the population continues to grow, freeing up more land to build on will only become more pressing. With this in mind, many architect and design practices are looking to use infill sites in built-up areas. Bristol-based project ‘We Can Make’ identified more than 2,000 ‘micro-sites’ in the area that would suitably fit one to two bedroom dwellings. As part of this initiative, architect practice White Design and straw technology company ModCell developed the Tam house, a flexible home built with renewable materials, designed specifically to meet the needs of ‘Generation Rent’.

Other micro-homes include an unlikely collaboration between architect Sam Jacob and car manufacturer MINI, which created the 15-square metre Urban Cabin. Based on a modular concept, the cabin incorporates wood in the exterior and has undergone various adaptations as it’s been taken on a world tour to further explore the design’s possibilities.

Evolve with timber

Modular construction has been cited as the saviour of the construction industry as it increases quality, can be made from sustainable materials such as CLT or timber frame, minimises disruption on site and helps to address the UK’s skills shortage. For a country in the midst of a housing crisis, offsite manufacturing can quickly provide the homes we need. The other bonus is the adaptability it provides. As our living situations change, the ability of our homes to grow and evolve with us is a fundamental part of housing design.

Wudl has embraced this concept with its Space design that starts off with basic studio-style spaces that can be extended or have additional storeys added to expand in line with the homeowners needs. Made from a timber frame, the structure incorporates wood fibre insulation, composite timber-aluminium windows and can be cladded with cedar. This makes it a sustainable option which can achieve zero carbon status.

The challenges that we face in providing housing for our growing population are both complex and varied. Choosing timber can help to reduce and mitigate the impact of climate change, while providing comfortable, adaptable living spaces for generations both now and into the future.


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