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Bridging the gap between timber and modern construction

by BDigital_Admin
Dave Hopkins, chief executive, Timber Development UK

With electric vehicles and AI now commonplace, it might seem strange to be talking about man’s oldest building material, wood, as a solution to the woes of the modern construction industry. But the twin pressures of the climate emergency and a drive for efficiency via Design for Manufacture and Assembly have bought us full circle, writes Timber Development UK CEO Dave Hopkins

The importance we now place on wood should not come as much of a surprise when we look at the environmental challenges facing the industry. Construction and the built environment are responsible for 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, and this is mainly due to the extraction, processing, and manufacturing of energy-intensive building materials such as concrete and steel.

Meanwhile, lifecycle assessment studies consistently show that timber products absorb and store more carbon than is emitted through their production – which means timber can actively reduce carbon emissions rather than adding to them on projects.

In the Future Home Hub’s recently published ‘Embodied and Whole Life Carbon Implementation Plan’ for housebuilders, timber frame construction featured in initial assessments as a leading solution to reducing upfront carbon emissions, providing a 16% reduction over masonry housing.

And it’s not just about the environmental benefits. Timber is lightweight and easy to work with, making it ideal for many of the technical solutions currently emerging to make construction more efficient and cost-effective. Timber is well suited to prefabrication and assembly offsite in factory conditions, which is ideal for modern methods of construction (MMC) such as those described in the government’s Construction Playbook for public sector contracts. 

You can already see this in practice today through the offsite manufactured Trussed Rafters, whose skeletal silhouettes can be seen rising above building sites all over the UK. Meanwhile, timber-frame houses all over the world are textbook examples of fast and efficient construction – with the added benefit of providing high-quality homes, better cost controls, and beautiful living environments.

The big change today, however, is the move toward timber use in much more cutting-edge projects around the world. This has been helped by the emergence of engineered timbers such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL), which have seen architects and engineers push the limits of what is possible with timber.

Examples include towering high-rise buildings in Norway, gravity-defying one-off designs like the Metropol Parasol in Seville, and boundary-pushing sustainable workplaces such as a Black & White Building in London. 

The Black & White Building, from Waugh-Thistleton and The Office Group, became London’s tallest engineered-timber office building in 2023. Standing 17.8m tall, the six-storey building is an ingenious example of timber construction. It contains no concrete above the ground floor slab, and its frame uses engineered timber to provide all the strength and adaptability of steel. 

Thanks to offsite manufacturing, the project took around six months to build and involved 80% fewer truck deliveries than an equivalent concrete building – with considerably less noise pollution and disruption to the local area. Further, it is designed so it can be taken apart and re-used elsewhere in the future.

If this office building was built from concrete, the embodied carbon impact would be 622kg CO2e/m2. With timber it was just 256kg CO2e/m2.

“Despite a misguided reputation among some construction professionals, timber is no more dangerous to build with than any other material”

It’s clear then, that timber can provide real solutions across the modern construction sector. There are hundreds of other examples of fantastic timber buildings in the UK, many of which are showcased each year in the Wood Awards, which in recent years has provided early showcases for Stirling Prize-winning timber constructs such as the sublime Magdelene College Library. 

Every day, I see the foundations for a timber construction revolution in the UK, but there are barriers to overcome to bridge the gap between venerable timber and the modern construction sector. 

In the UK, the construction skills shortage (with some 50,000 workers needed to meet current growth targets) can be felt no more strongly than in green construction methods. Be it retrofit, offsite manufacture, and, yes, sustainable materials like timber, workforce knowledge is lacking and educational pathways remain underdeveloped.

Despite a misguided reputation among some construction professionals in England, timber is no more dangerous to build with than any other material, if building codes and safety standards are met. But, without more architects and engineers who understand timber’s unique characteristics, large-scale adoption is still a challenge.

The timber industry consistently calls for improved education to instil a wider understanding of timber’s attributes, potential uses, and impacts on productivity, as well as its environmental and whole-life cost benefits. This education must instil collaborative practices and an improved understanding of the net-zero challenge, with an emphasis on SME engagement and a collaborative approach to the design process.

To address this skills gap, an industry-agreed Timber Skills Action Plan has been developed, providing a breakdown of the skills and knowledge required for building with timber. The plan covers design and specification, manufacture, construction, building, and science materials, health and safety regulation and legislation, sustainability, and the circular economy.

The goal is to aid the development of training programs and support Continuing Professional Development, enabling built environment professionals to confidently incorporate timber into building designs.

The Timber Skills Action Plan has already underpinned a set of short, practical courses developed by the Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT) in partnership with TDUK. The Timber TED (Technical Engineering & Design) courses provide comprehensive and flexible training for modern timber construction methods, enabling professionals to upskill and reskill in this critical area.

Progress is also being made with various government working groups on how timber can play a bigger role in the drive to net-zero and projects like Magdelene College Library and the Black & White building are showcasing timber to an ever-wider audience.

The future of construction could well be timber.

Image: Dave Hopkins, chief executive, Timber Development UK

Read next: Legal & General to cease building new homes at Leeds modular factory

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