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“Timber alone can’t get us out of this mess”


Concrete in addition to timber shall be required to handle the dual challenges of averting local weather catastrophe and constructing the infrastructure the world wants, writes Philip Oldfield as a part of our Timber Revolution sequence.


There’s a paradox in our want for a low-carbon constructed setting. On the one hand, we all know buildings are accountable for 37 per cent of energy-related greenhouse gasoline emissions, and we have to radically cut back this to keep away from world heating. On the opposite, UN-Habitat estimates that 3 billion individuals want enough housing by 2030, with demand for 96,000 new houses every single day (that is multiple per second), giving us a transparent ethical duty to construct to enhance individuals’s lives.

However constructing is inherently carbon-intensive, which leaves us with an issue.

That’s nicely over a 3rd of our whole carbon price range gone simply by creating new buildings

Right here is the dimensions of the problem. The IPCC states that to offer us a 50 per cent probability of limiting world warming to 1.5 levels celsius we’ve got a remaining “carbon price range” of 500 billion tonnes of greenhouse gasoline emissions. On the identical time, estimates recommend we will undertake 230 billion sq. metres of recent building by 2060, and the carbon impression of that’s monumental.

If we have a look at LETI’s life-cycle embodied carbon targets, typical residential building has an embodied carbon of round 800 kilograms of carbon dioxide-equivalent per sq. metre. If all 230 billion sq. metres is constructed to this normal, whole emissions from new building alone could be 184 billion tonnes of CO2.

That’s nicely over a 3rd of our whole carbon price range gone simply by creating new buildings – earlier than we have even turned a lightswitch on, fed a human being, hopped onto a airplane, or the rest. So how can we handle humanity’s pressing, competing wants: to cut back emissions whereas offering the inhabitants with protected, comfy locations to reside?

Our present constructing practices are unsustainable, that a lot is evident. A serious concern over embodied carbon has emerged, sparking an ideal architectural debate on what supplies we must be utilizing and when, together with a flurry of innovation in materials science. For an trade that has usually relied on a small palette of carbon-intensive supplies for the final century, such introspection and innovation is actually welcome.

Mass timber has risen from this debate because the go-to materials for extra sustainable design. Timber is a magical materials in so some ways. The heat it offers to inside areas, at odds to the banality of plasterboard and suspended ceilings; that candy scent of pine you get as you enter a mass-timber area.

However timber’s carbon efficiency is the place the actual magic occurs. As much less power and fossil gasoline is used to create mass-timber elements, it has a decrease embodied carbon than metal and concrete.

Timber’s nice foe in any materials debate is concrete

Furthermore, timber shops carbon, pulled out of the ambiance by timber throughout photosynthesis. A kilogram of wooden may have eliminated round 1.7 kilograms of CO2 from the ambiance, locking up the carbon till the top of the timber product’s life. As such, timber buildings can present a long-term “carbon sink”, locking in emissions for many years.

These magical qualities are starting to remodel the best way we construct. Simply check out Waugh Thistleton Architects’ Black and White Constructing (pictured), with its precision-engineered timber body, elegant tulipwood shading and heat tactile interiors. The truth that such high quality is achieved alongside a 37 per cent discount in embodied carbon is outstanding.

Timber’s nice foe in any materials debate is concrete. The human race makes use of extra concrete than some other materials aside from water. We’re merely hooked on it. Nonetheless, this dependancy has come at an enormous price, with cement accountable for as a lot as 8 per cent of all CO2 emissions.

When cement is manufactured, floor limestone and clay are heated as much as 1,400 levels celsius to create clinker. This course of breaks down the limestone and instantly releases CO2. On this sense, cement is the environmental reverse of timber – whereas timber absorbs CO2 throughout its creation, cement releases it.

It is totally comprehensible then that any constructing constructed from timber is mechanically heralded as sustainable, whereas these constructed from concrete are more and more demonised. The fact, nonetheless, is much less easy. For example, can we actually take into account a mass-timber constructing with a big underground automobile park and absolutely glazed facade a low-carbon resolution?

The carbon advantages of timber may also be difficult to measure. The truth that timber “shops” carbon can result in timber merchandise being labelled with detrimental embodied-carbon figures. This creates a perverse situation the place including extra materials right into a constructing may cut back its embodied carbon.

We can’t fall right into a entice of merely changing one materials with one other

There is not any doubt that timber buildings may be low-carbon, however we can’t fall right into a entice of merely changing one materials with one other and pondering that is sufficient.

To sufficiently cut back embodied carbon, we additionally have to problem when, and the way we construct. Mad Arkitekter’s Kristian Augusts Gate 13 constructing in Oslo exhibits us a method. Right here a methodical and nearly obsessive method to materials sustainability is pursued by means of the adaptive reuse and growth of a 1958 workplace constructing.

The venture makes use of 80 per cent reused supplies, together with undesirable home windows, structural metal, bricks, cladding and even concrete ground plates from “donor buildings”. This has decreased embodied carbon by a paradigm-shifting 70 per cent.

The mixture of radical reuse and a large uptake of mass timber may go a great distance in decarbonising the constructed setting. However can we abandon concrete totally? It is very simple to take a seat within the prosperous world north, benefitting from many years of infrastructure funding, most of which is constructed from concrete, and say sure.

Nonetheless, concrete has lifted billions of individuals out of poverty, bettering lives around the globe. It is unlikely we are able to present housing and infrastructure for billions with out it.

The issue is that we have used concrete far too wastefully and much too usually in buildings. As a substitute, we should always deal with concrete as a valuable materials, utilizing it sparingly given its carbon intensive properties – a transfer away from the ever present “do all of it” materials it’s in the present day.

Debate round our constructed supplies is definitely a optimistic factor

That is why it is so uplifting to see improvements that search to cut back concrete’s use dramatically. The ACORN venture’s vaulted ground slab makes use of 75 per cent much less concrete than a standard ground, whereas ETH Zurich’s geometric ribbed slabs use 70 per cent much less. There’s additionally analysis and growth seeking to make concrete carbon impartial – though let’s not maintain our breath on this.

The extraordinary scrutiny and debate round our constructed supplies is definitely a optimistic factor. It has allowed architects to problem the standard, and to work nearer than ever earlier than with provide chains, materials scientists and even demolition contractors.

It is a interval of nice experimentation and reinvention, with stone, straw, hemp and extra coming to the forefront. Hell, we’re even constructing homes out of strong cork blocks. To ship the buildings we want with out ushering in local weather breakdown, we’ll want each software we are able to get.

If we’re merely evaluating timber and concrete, timber is the simple winner. However radically lowering embodied carbon is a depraved drawback, and there is no silver bullet. As magical as it’s, we can’t count on timber alone to get us out of this mess.

Philip Oldfield is Head of Faculty of the Constructed Atmosphere, UNSW Sydney. He’s the writer of The Sustainable Tall Constructing: A Design Primer (2019).

The photograph is by Jake Curtis.


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Illustration by Yo Hosoyamada

Timber Revolution

This text is a part of Dezeen’s Timber Revolution sequence, which explores the potential of mass timber and asks whether or not going again to wooden as our major building materials can lead the world to a extra sustainable future.

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