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  • Timber inside: low-carbon options for healthy buildings

Timber inside: low-carbon options for healthy buildings

Due to the current lockdown from covid19 we are spending more time indoors than ever before. As we spend the majority of our day inside, many of us are re-thinking our home spaces, so how can we make our buildings healthier and more sustainable from the inside? 

Sick Building Syndrome

Often associated with offices, Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)’ can be caused by a high count of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), poor humidity and air quality and being unable to maintain a regular temperature. In the winter months, symptoms could easily be confused with a common cold. But some symptoms may include itchy skin or rashes, headaches and lethargy. 

Home truths about VOCs

VOCs are found throughout our homes. They can exist in furniture, paint, cleaning products, adhesives and more. According to BREEAM, VOCs are “substances that have a high vapour pressure at room temperature…this means they are released into the air from materials without having to heat them.”

In the UK, there are currently no guidelines on the levels of VOCs that we can safely be exposed to. But, as we become wiser to the dangers of VOCs, manufacturers for products such as paint are creating low VOC versions. And assessment schemes like BREEAM and WELL and the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) can offer further guidance on safer products to use. 

There’s something in the air

Ventilation systems are fundamental in helping regulate humidity, air quality and to expel harmful VOC emissions from the home. This prevents damp and mould, which can cause respiratory illnesses. 

Building new homes provides an opportunity to implement better ventilation systems that also align with the UK’s goal to achieve net zero carbon by 2050. 

The World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched its ‘Air Quality in the Built Environment’ campaign in 2019 and advised that one of the main ways to reduce indoor air pollution is to address the materials we use.

WGBC encourages the use of ‘sustainable, non-toxic and air-purifying building materials.’ Wood fulfils this criteria and wood products in the home have been shown to improve indoor air quality by moderating humidity.

Giving homes warmth

Beyond the practical matters, feeling comfortable in the home can be determined by the interior. Wood has a positive effect on human health because of how it lowers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. SNS is what causes stress responses, increases blood pressure, raises heart rate and inhibits functions like digesting, recovery and repair. When surrounded by nature and wood, these symptoms reduce.

So, if you are responsible for designing or specifying interiors, consider where you can include wood for a healthy and sustainable result.

Timber doors

Internal and external timber doors provide excellent acoustic and thermal properties. As with all interior joinery products, they contribute to indoor air quality through effective humidity regulation. 

For dwellings that need fire doors, such as blocks of flats and other types of shared accommodation, or homes with a loft conversion or where there’s an internal door between a garage and the home, timber fire doors are the perfect solution. Third-party certificated doors and doorsets provide proven performance against fire and smoke, protecting lives and property.

Timber windows

Timber framed windows, combined with double or triple glazing, save energy, carbon dioxide emissions and money. 

“While PVC-u windows - originally hailed as ‘the future’ for durability and ease and a new, cheaper option - were installed in their thousands in the 70s, 80s and 90s, today we’re seeing new questions arising. A growing recognition among environmentally aware millennials that wood really is good,” says the Wood Window Alliance (WWA). 

Read the WWA’s report on the life cycle analysis of timber windows here. 

Timber flooring and stairs

As with all timber joinery products, timber flooring brings a wide range of health benefits. For allergy sufferers, hardwood flooring is often cited as the best solution as doesn’t hold on to dust mites, mould or mildew. 

Timber stairs are often chosen for their high-performance characteristics, extensive and varied range of finishes and the sheer natural beauty of timber as a material. The BWF Stair Scheme has produced design and installation guides to assist architects and contractors in making the most of timber stairs. 

The inside-out approach to a circular economy

In addition to the practical and health benefits wood products can provide, they also contribute to a circular economy. The UK is a ‘shift’ country according to the Circulatory Gap Report. This means its material consumption is 10 times higher than that of a ‘build’ country, a developing country. Consequently, the UK along with other shift countries around the world needs to build more sustainably. Despite United Nations climate crisis talks, not enough action is being taken, particularly by those who are causing the most harm.

This calls for circular design. Circular design promotes recycling, reducing and reusing materials. Wood, as a biological material, can be turned into a product, recycled and turned into another product and at the end of its lifecycle can return to the environment. 

Choosing wood for kitchens, flooring, stairs, doors and windows is a step towards creating homes that contribute to net zero goals. Wood sequesters carbon and is renewable and several procurement schemes exist to ensure wood is sourced sustainably, such as PEFC and FSC.

Wood products can also be Cradle to Cradle Certified. This certification scheme assesses the quality of each product under five categories:  

  • Material Health
  • Material Reutilisation
  • Renewable Energy and Carbon Management
  • Water Stewardship
  • Social Fairness. 

The product is then given an overall certification level, a grade, based on how many of the quality categories the product fulfils: Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

Read the 2020 Circulatory Gap Report here.

Find out more about the circular economy here.


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