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  • Investing in timber: The Welsh way to tackle the housing crisis

Investing in timber: The Welsh way to tackle the housing crisis

Famed for its steel production, Wales may not seem the likeliest place to build its homes from timber. But the land of the dragons is overhauling its housing policies and timber plays a pivotal role.

Wales hasn’t always been the king of steel. 200 years ago, locally-grown larch was the building material of choice and in 2018 the country harvested 1.6 million m3 of timber. While the majority of the harvested logs could be graded for construction, most leave for other markets such as packaging and fencing. According to estimates from Woodknowledge Wales, Welsh housing would require up to 200,000m3 of harvested logs to meet housing targets.

Putting timber and forestry at the heart of housing policy

Like England, Wales is in the midst of a housing crisis. Not enough homes are being built and the homes that are built are often of poor quality. These homes fail to address fuel poverty and lead to poor occupant wellbeing. The latest housing-need estimates in Wales indicate 8,300 new homes must be built each year. In 2017-18 Wales constructed 6,663 new homes of which only 1,876 were affordable.

Wales is also conscious of the climate crisis and that 40% of the UK’s energy related carbon emissions are caused by the built environment.

Subsequently, Wales is keen to bring housing, timber manufacturing and forestry together into a value-creating ecosystem to provide the commercial environment necessary for substantial and sustained investment in the supply chain.

Supporting local manufacturers and suppliers

In its Future Generations Act, Wales has set out a vision to increase environmental, social, cultural and economic wellbeing in the country. On 29 April 2019 Welsh Government declared a climate emergency and subsequently published a 10 Point Plan to Fund Wales’ Climate Emergency. Consequently, it pushes for a change in the country's policy that will increase forestation (approx. 4000ha per year until 2050) to sequester carbon and increase timber for use in construction. The aim is to create high-performance and affordable new timber homes while supporting local manufacturers and suppliers.

Responding to this, Woodknowledge Wales along with the Welsh woodland organisation, Coed Cymru, Cardiff Metropolitan University and BM TRADA, established the Home-Grown Homes project. The project’s purpose is “to create high-performance and affordable new homes from wood in a manner that maximises the opportunity for local manufacturers and home-grown timber.”

As part of the Home-Grown Homes partnership, one local authority, Powys County Council, has adopted a Wood Encouragement Policy. The mission is to “build better, more energy efficient houses, support the local forestry industry and to create jobs. The policy sets out that all new council housing projects will look to use wood as the preferred material for both construction and fit-out purposes.”

The policy is the first of its kind in the UK and the most recent project is at a site in Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, near Ruthin. The development of 38 new timber frame homes is for housing association, ClwydAlyn Housing, and is being built by low-carbon construction contractor, Williams Homes (Bala) Ltd.

Powys County Council is responsible for the first affordable social housing development for 30 years in Newtown. On completion, the three-storey building will contain 26 one-bedroom flats, constructed using Welsh-grown timber for part of the primary structure and also for windows and doors.

An earlier example is Cwrt Rhos Fynach, Rhos on Sea. It was designed by Cru Architects, for Wales and West Housing Association to meet the needs of Conwy Borough Council in North Wales. Housing up to 26 residents in 11 flats, it was constructed and built by Williams Homes (Bala) Ltd using home-grown timber.

Modern methods of construction

Not satisfied with leading the way with a focus on the development of local timber supply chains, Wales also embraces modern methods of timber construction, such as timber frame, which was used for the project in Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd.

The Welsh Government’s £90m Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) recognises using timber combined with new and emerging forms of construction helps to deliver much-needed homes faster. Using home-grown timber also means Wales could exceed the objectives it laid out in its report ‘Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales’, released earlier this year, a topic also addressed in a Government-commissioned report by Woodknowledge Wales: ‘Zero Carbon Homes.’

As a result, one in three homes in Wales are now built from timber frame and more than 3,250 panelised timber frame homes were manufactured in Wales in 2018. Welsh-manufactured timber frame for social housing grew from 445 units in 2016 to 752 in 2018, an increase of 69%. In addition to timber frame, cross-laminated timber (CLT) is now gaining momentum in homes across Wales.

Timber frame’s popularity is due in part to its ability to meet Passivhaus levels of performance. And this approach to housing hasn’t been missed by Wales’ education sector. Burry Port Community Primary School in Carmarthenshire pays homage to the wonders that Welsh building materials can bring. Constructed from Welsh-grown larch, Douglas Fir and Sitka spruce, the school was the first Passivhaus school building in Wales. This has created a beautiful and sustainable environment for children to learn and play in.

Welsh timber: the perfect choice for high-end construction

The range of suitable softwood species in Wales places the country as one of the most favourable environments in Europe, according to foresters. This includes growing conifers such as Sitka spruce, Douglas Fir and other minor species. Welsh grown Sitka spruce is already strength graded to C16 and with new grading technology, mixed strength grades of C16 and C24 would be possible in Wales. Douglas fir and larch grown in Wales can already be visually strength graded to C24. Essentially, Welsh timber has great potential for use in high-end construction.

Recognising the great build quality that can be achieved using Welsh timber, architects and builders are increasingly specifying it for interior and exterior joinery, wood fibre insulation and external timber cladding.

Becoming a high-value forest nation

Brokering a national dialogue on the forest economy as one of the pillars a future low carbon society, Wales’ annual WoodBUILD conference 2019  brought together enthused stakeholders including policy makers, members of the forestry industry, suppliers and manufacturers, joiners, academics, housing professionals and industry bodies  to discuss the country’s potential of “Becoming a high-value forest nation’..

Discussion was animated and much of the dialogue was between different organisations in the supply chain about the ways they can adapt their systems or products to allow for increased collaboration and new, innovative solutions.

There was also encouraging support from Welsh Government. Sarah Laing Gibbens, Head of Commercial Performance, Homes and Places, Welsh Government said:

“We have 34 developing housing associations and local authorities entering the supply chain. As the guardian of public money, we want to give it to those that are building homes in the right way, and if we have to pay slightly more to get that, we will pay.”

Commenting on a point raised about procurement, she stated: “Procurement is broken. There is an obsession with lowest capital cost but then paying out lots of money for repairs and maintenance further down the track, with no accountability. We are looking at whole life procurement methods which favour high-value over low costs. That’s how we will build our houses.”

Leading the timber revolution

With such collaboration and goodwill amongst housing associations, local councils and local manufacturers, backed up by policy from the Welsh government, Wales is ideally placed to create the much-needed sustainable and efficient homes it needs for future generations as well as the forests that will provide the building material.

Find all presentations from WoodBUILD 2019 here.

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