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  • Building for the future: The need for green innovation, resilience and quality housing at scale

Building for the future: The need for green innovation, resilience and quality housing at scale

Climate change and population growth are demanding fundamental changes for further development of the built environment across the globe. Peter Wilson, Timber Design Initiatives, talks about some of the biggest challenges and how timber design needs to change to respond to future needs.

What do you see as the main challenges for the built environment in the next 30 years?

Far and away the biggest challenge is to provide sufficient housing for the globe’s expanding population. According to the UN, the global population is set to reach 11.2 billion by the year 2100, up from its estimate of current population at the end of 2017 as 7.6 billion, meaning another 3.6 billion people will require to be accommodated in dwellings fit for human habitation. Much of this growth is likely to involve large-scale gravitation of people from rural areas to urban environments - a phenomenon we are already witnessing in many developing countries as people seek better employment opportunities or as a consequence of war, famine or political oppression. Building the sheer volume of decent housing required is challenging enough, but with this comes the need to massively upscale infrastructure, not to mention the huge pressure that will be placed upon food production, material resources and water supply.

Addressing these pressing issues clearly requires a universal sea change in political thinking and actions, but we also need to rethink the nature of architectural and engineering education as well as the inefficiencies and material wastefulness of the construction industry which, in many parts of the world, is wedded to unsustainable technologies. Each of these groupings needs to take seriously the imperatives of the circular economy and apply them to every aspect of design, engineering and construction. This means prioritising the use of renewable materials, meeting or bettering zero energy requirements through more thermally efficient construction and seeking to build homes that have the highest internal space and air quality standards. The quality of external space, too, is vitally important: people need to live in healthy environments in which the micro-climates created between buildings need far greater attention than we are used to seeing in conventional housing developments and in too many of the approaches of planners and urban designers when faced with large scale infrastructure projects.

This is a huge subject and deserves far greater discussion than can be afforded here. It will form a significant part of the programme of Forum Holzbau’s very first UK conference and exhibition which will be held in Edinburgh on 9-10 May 2019. The conference title indicates the event’s ambition: ‘Previewing the World to Come - Making the Modern Timber City’. 

Building homes fit for the future, what does this entail?

You don’t need to be a hero to deserve decent living accommodation, as was once promised by Lloyd George to men returning from war: it should be recognised as a fundamental human right by all governments and delivered accordingly. Unfortunately, the provision of housing in the UK since World War II has been heavily politicised, with an obsession by all parties on the numbers of houses built or to be built, rather than on the size and quality of the homes constructed. Arguably this has been exacerbated since the 1970’s by the notion that everyone should own, rather than rent, their own home: an idealogical position that has been difficult to maintain in the decade of austerity since the economic crash of 2008. The result is Generation Rent: prohibitive and ever-rising cost has meant that many younger people no longer presume to aspire to own their own home and Britain’s once strong social housing sector has largely been replaced by an expensive private rental market. Within this context, the question for future housebuilding has to be how best bang for buck can be delivered but, in our modern world, that buck has to be considerably greener than in the past if it is to have any future worth.

I tried to address this challenge in a non-political way in ‘The Modern Timber House in the UK’ which Wood for Good commissioned me to write, by exploring all of the many ways we might address future housing quality and supply through greater use of the one natural, renewable building resource we have and to show that there is no form of housing that can’t be made from wood. The final chapter of the book is entitled ‘The Future Timber House’, but might more accurately have been called ‘The Resilient Timber House’ since it largely focused on the current fashion for construction of houses on land that Vitruvius would have considered to be completely inappropriate: flood plains or sites liable to flooding.  Resilience, however, would have required other possibilities to be examined: seismic zones for example, and whilst the UK landmass thankfully does not suffer badly from this condition, there are parts of the world where modern timber construction has been proved to be more considerably durable and far less dangerous to human life than traditional local building techniques. Land availability - or the lack of it - will no doubt mean that sites previously regarded as unsuitable for housing will continue to be considered as possibilities (e.g over redundant cool mines, on land slip coastal areas, or where contaminated land requires remediation), even if they necessitate extensive - even ingenious - engineering works to ensure their fitness and longevity. For the less adventurous, the estate agent and volume house builder’s only known Latin phrase - caveat emptor - must remain the advice.

How are timber designs changing to respond to future requirements?

I would characterise this in a slightly different way: how can we begin to utilise modern engineered timber products and systems in ways that not only anticipate future building requirements but also make  innovative use of their inherent characteristics and properties. At present, too many timber designs still mimic more traditional forms of construction with, for example, cross laminated timber panels used in very similar ways to reinforced concrete panels or tunnel form construction. Glulam, too, is often simply used as an alternative to steel or concrete frames. Neither of these - nor indeed other forms of solid laminate timber structures - are well enough known or understood by the vast majority of the UK’s building professionals, even though solid laminate timber systems in their basic forms, such as CLT, Glulam, LVL, Nail-Lam and Dowel-Lam (Brettstapel) are hardly new to the marketplace, CLT having been first used here  some 20 years ago.

That said, all innovative technologies take time to mature and develop their own character - the columns of the Crystal Palace, the high tech glass and metal structure of 1851, for example, still manifested the iconography of stone construction in their Corinthian capitals. Parametric modelling, CNC cutting machines and advanced robotics are changing the way we think about modern timber technologies, however - we can cut, shape and connect timber building elements in ways never before possible and this, combined with the rethinking of existing building types as well as entirely new ones, allows designers to move beyond the prescribed dimensions of standard panel construction and envisage entirely new forms - the double-curved, interlocking Glulam structures that can now be seen in projects like the Musee du Vin in Bordeaux by XTU Architectes or in the small, but exquisite, recent house extension in London by Gianni Botsford Architects show what can be achieved with real imagination and a desire to extend the potential of the products and technologies involved. Where some lead, others follow and technologies once considered alien or risky, eventually become mainstream. We can’t anticipate all future building requirements, but the great thing about timber is that it, possibly more than any other construction material, allows considerable latitude in use and the opportunity for serious experimentation.

Looking across the globe, where could the UK find inspiration for future-proof homes?

From a timber perspective, the first thing we need to do is look at the technologies that exist and are being extensively used elsewhere and the research and development of new, advanced timber products, systems and technologies that is taking place around Europe and North America. The second thing to consider is the nature of the housing sector in the UK: over the past 50 years property values have come to dominate the national economy to an extent unseen almost anywhere else in the world. This has had the effect of inflating land costs, with the result that the provision of new housing has become prohibitively expensive. This is unsustainable, both from an economic perspective, but also from the standpoint of housing demand in which there is an inverse relationship between the numbers of houses actually constructed each year and the ever-rising shortage of affordable, habitable dwellings.

Whilst we see new large scale housing developments in inner city areas constructed from mass timber elements and able to achieve significant economies in terms of speed of building, quality of construction, minimal waste etc. when compared with other methods and technologies, the space standards of these homes are still largely based upon room numbers rather than overall floor area and (depending upon the individual design, of course) are often quite inflexible in layout and construction and thus not effectively future-proofed for changing uses.

One of the issues relating to this that continues to perplex me is the disconnect that exists between the modus operandi of the UK housebuilding industry and the sheer amount of research carried out in our universities into housing issues and likely future habitation needs as well as how technological development can help us to deliver homes more effectively in terms of speed, quality and cost without diminution of actual housing quality. In my experience, the UK’s construction industry does not have the same close relationship with university departments and research facilities that I see in other countries, nor is there the same connectivity and understanding of respective skills between building design professionals and carpenters that can be found, for example, in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I appreciate that, in suggesting this is something to aspire to if we are to have a more enlightened attitude to housing provision and the future-proofing thereof, I am promoting what some will consider to be, radical change and that the delivery of this will need more than just wishful thinking.

Which brings me to two recent, positive developments in the USA that we might not only learn from, but also implement our own versions of. Fundamentally, change that seriously anticipates and addresses future housing needs in the UK will not happen without some form of incentive: regulatory change in itself has rarely activated genuine innovation in this sector. The first of these initiatives - just before Christmas, was President Trump’s signature on a Timber Innovation Act (albeit that it was contained in an agricultural bill) and which seeks to stimulate not only an significant increase in the construction of tall timber buildings, but also research into advanced timber products and systems. The Act is intended to support the forestry sector, expand capacity in the timber manufacturing sector and, in the process, deliver many more jobs in industry and construction.

This has been followed only a few weeks later in California with a major architectural competition predicated upon the use of mass timber products and systems. Amongst the judging criteria listed, the applicants have to present well-considered propositions on the impact on forest health in California, resilience and sustainability and innovation. Both of these initiatives come with significant sums of money attached for design and research: we need to see similar opportunities come from central and local government in the UK, instead of the current practice of subsidising house purchases from established developers whose interest in the future-proofing of homes is, many would argue, antipathetic to their business plans. 

About Peter Wilson

An architect, writer and critic, Peter Wilson is managing Director of Edinburgh-based Timber Design Initiatives Ltd whose raison d’être is to promote education, innovation and demonstration in all areas of timber design and construction. In collaboration with the Forum Holzbau Foundation, the company is organising the inaugural UK event in FHB’s renowned annual pan-European programme of timber conferences and exhibitions. Forum Timber Construction UK takes place in Edinburgh on 9-10 May 2019. For more information, see here.

Read our feature article The Future Timber House: Sustainable, Adaptable and Resilient.


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