Opinion

Build with wood to tackle the climate crisis

26 February 2020 | By Christiane Lellig

BSkyB’s Believe in Better Building, the UK’s tallest commercial timber structure (Image: B&K Structures)

Timber construction can help the UK achieve its 2050 net zero target, both through new build and recycling, says Christiane Lellig.

Before she bowed out as prime minister, Theresa May announced the government’s goal for the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It’s a tough ask, and as the built environment accounts for around 40% of the total carbon emissions in the UK, it needs to be a key driver in making positive changes.

This is where timber comes in. The key benefit of wood is its ability to sequester carbon. Buildings turn into a carbon store when their structural frame, insulation and interiors are made from wood.

“Building with products such as timber frame and cross-laminated timber results in a quicker build time, reduced wastage and less time needed for workers to be on site, thus reducing risk.”

Christiane Lellig

Advancements in technology have allowed timber to play a significant role in the growing offsite construction market. Building with products such as timber frame and cross-laminated timber results in a quicker build time, reduced wastage and less time needed for workers to be on site, thus reducing risk.

Wood can be used as a hybrid material too. Where materials such as steel or concrete are used, wood can be woven into the construction and help offset carbon emissions while potentially improving the aesthetics.

Additionally, timber is easily reused. Wood, as a biological material, can be turned into a product, often reused in similar contexts or recycled and turned into another product. At the end of its life cycle it can return to the environment.

Construction is seen as a traditional industry that is slow to react to change. Moreover, persuading a client to consider using different building materials is no mean feat. But clients also have a moral responsibility to consider ways to minimise the impact the buildings they commission have on the environment. Wood for Good’s online Lifecycle Database provides evidence and data to demonstrate the positive influence wood products can have on a building’s performance and ultimately its environmental impact. 

There are also real-world examples. BskyB’s Believe in Better Building in west London is the tallest commercial timber structure in the UK, built by Mace with the frame installed by B&K. It included a 15% reduction in embodied carbon of construction, 27% of recycled content, responsible sourcing of materials, while delivering on key principles of the WELL Standard – quality daylighting, air quality and natural material selection.

And a 36-home social housing project in Wales, which used local spruce for the structural frame and larch for the cladding, has beaten the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge targets.

Climate change is a real threat and the built environment is one of the biggest culprits. The onus is on the construction industry to change and adapt its ways. The solutions are feasible, realistic and available now, but the industry must react and change its practices today – if net zero carbon by 2050 is to be achieved.

Christiane Lellig is campaign director at Wood for Good

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