Timber - The New Steel

Posted by on 8 March 2018

Wooden Building Large steel buildings inspired by the industrial revolution springs to mind when we here the term construction. Just as many of us think of plumes of smoke pouring out of chimneys when we think of the industrial revolution. The way we build has evolved over the years and so has its meaning. We have entered a new revolution, the sustainable building revolution where timber has never been so central.  

From renovation to new build, residential to commercial, construction is a diverse term that typically means building something that is large. The meaning of construction has not necessarily changed but it has broadened into a diverse and sophisticated expression. Construction’s broad meaning spans from traditional steel structures to our modern way of building. Construction is now concerned with ensuring sustainability. Using resources in a way that ensures the survival of future generations without depleting the earth’s resources. Construction has only recently become sustainably focused. Little thought went into the effects of materials, nature, health and longevity when it came to construction. Think of the leaky house crisis in New Zealand, an ongoing construction and legal crisis concerning timbre framed buildings built from 1994 to 2004. These buildings suffer from weather-tightness problems. The crisis occurred because the Government introduced The Building Act 1991 which meant building controls were changed from a prescriptive system to a more self-regulated structure. Relaxed regulations encouraged immoral practices throughout the construction industry. Some knowingly participated in cutting corners to save costs, others unknowingly were contributing to the largest building crises in New Zealand history because of the lack of guidance. The crisis stressed the need for guidance and regulations for construction companies.

Modern technology has allowed for better testing of resources used in the industry. Recycled materials for building new homes and renovations are becoming more popular. It puts less stress on natural materials and gives use to products that would have otherwise be dumped or destroyed. This is the future of building, it is a way to ensure that natural resources are not depleting.

What is Sustainable building?

To be sustainable means to use and produce materials with minimal amount of repercussions on the environment. It also needs to stand the test of time and be structurally sound. We produce a lot of waste, most of which are items that are simply too expensive to fix; hence being coined a Throw-Away-Society. The durability of a product is no longer a priority for product developers. It wouldn’t make business sense to produce something that never needs replacing, or else it wouldn’t be as profitable. Thanks to mass consumerism, the concept that increasing consumption of goods is valuable to a company and the economy, companies are less inclined to produce a product that lasts. Rather, they insist on a quality service. The construction industry has to be more versatile than this. They cannot give into the idea of consumerism as buildings are a whole new ball game. When building a home, longevity is everything. For some, it is the only opportunity they will have to build their dream home. So, naturally they want it to last their life time and generations to come. Rebuilding every 3 years wouldn’t make economic or environmental sense. Why not have a home that lasts and can be updated when needed.

What is the industry doing now to build sustainably?

Some sustainable activities can seem counterproductive. Sustainability results in the use of natural resources. So, if everyone were to be sustainable, there would be a lot of stress on the natural environment. Which seems unreasonable when we are also trying to minimise the effects that we have on our environment. This is where the balance of sustainability is critical. Part of sustainability is the rate at which renewable resources can be used indefinitely, if they cannot be used indefinitely then they are not sustainable. One of the biggest projects in the building industry is constructing large buildings out of timber. Traditionally towers, office blocks and apartments have been constructed out of steel, and for good reason. Steel has many advantages, it is relatively fire resistant, accessible, durable, and can be integrated well into architecturally designed buildings. Concrete is another common material in construction. It is not limited to footpaths but is commonly used when constructing large buildings. It is strong, flexible, retains heats, fire resistant and affordable. Combine steel and concrete and you have yourself a durable architecturally designed space. The only issue is, it is not sustainable. Steel and concrete are formed using minerals from the earth. Sounds sustainable right? Not quite. To be sustainable you must be able to adhere the second part of sustainability, it is not indefinite. The aggregate (rock, sand, or gravel) that is used in making concrete cannot be replaced. The same goes for steel. Steel is made using iron ore which is mined form the ground. The whole process of making steel produces a number of environmental impacts, including air pollution water contamination and hazardous waste. If the resource cannot be replaced or re-established to its original state, then it is not sustainable.

The Solution

Perhaps one of the most durable and sustainable materials on earth comes from something we see every day, trees. We all know that trees are a resource that can be regenerated over time. There is less impact on the environment when harvested and can even reduce pollutants in the air when constructed. Timber possesses the characteristics necessary for sustainable construction, durability, affordability, replenishable and minimal pollution during harvest. Critics are sceptical over the fire hazards it may pose. Heavy timber is relatively fire resistant, when it burns it forms a charcoal layer that stops heat from penetrating any further. Sustainably grown forests have a two-prong strategy. They are a resource for many industries and while they grow, help to reduce pollutants in the air. Deforestation, we hear it all the time. What we don’t hear about those plantations is that they have been sustainably grown and harvested. It takes a lot of planning to determine how much timbre is needed and if it is possible to grow fast enough. Humans have been using the earth’s resources for many years. Early settlers used timber to make ships, homes, carts and furniture. The Egyptians used rivers, stone and timber to build one of the most complex structures in history. Now we have the technology and education to use this resource for homes, renovations and buildings.

The Future of Building with Timber

Increasing global interest in living sustainably and living with nature, has sparked a race to be one of the first to build large buildings using mostly timber. The future is looking bright for the forestry industry with many planners implementing timber where ever they can. Biophilic design has been a major influence in the use of timber. This design technique emphasises our innate need for a connection with nature. When we immerse ourselves in nature we feel better about ourselves. There are significant health benefits to living and working in an environment that is inspired by nature. A Japanese company has announced their plans for a wooden skyscraper (W350) in an ambitious effort to build the world’s tallest skyscraper built out of wood. It will be 350 meters tall and occupy offices, hotel, retail and residential space. The goal is to convert the already existing environmentally conscious city into a forest and has been dubbed as “a living place of living thing”. The United States also has plans for constructing the largest timber high-rise in the US. It will be built in Portland and accommodate housing and offices.

w350 Japan tower

W350 Tower In Japan

Christchurch has even gone as far as adding timber into some of the new buildings that were destroyed by the earthquake. The University if Canterbury has built the largest timber building using timber-technology in New Zealand. Timber was used because of its flexible properties that make it suitable for earthquakes. It is also part of their initiative to become more environmentally friendly.

Concrete and steel were innovations of the industrial revolution and now timber is the construction material of the 21st century. Canada have used timber as a substitute for steel for many years. New Zealanders have begun to realise the environmental benefits that it has. New Zealand is a country that emphasises its clean green image, adapting to a sustainable solution to building makes sense. There is the issue of supply. Trees take a certain amount of years to reach maturity before they are able to be harvested. If everyone is using timber to construct large buildings, there could be an issue with not being able to supply. Forestry management will be key for ensuring that resources are not over exploited. New houses and renovations already use timber, especially for framing and flooring. We will start to see larger projects adopting the use of timber. The way we build is about to change as we know it.