Marlene Cramer SBE0097
Written evidence submitted by Marlene Cramer, a researcher in the InFutUReWood project, as an individual
- We should use more wood in construction
- Wood is not an infinite resource
- We need to use wood more efficiently and circularly
- The longer wood stays in use, the better
- Wood from demolitions becomes waste
- We should build more efficiently and circularly
- The longer buildings stay in use, the better
- Buildings that last are the buildings we like
- A modern construction sector can tackle all these problems in a holistic approach
- InFutUReWood (Innovative Design for the Future – Use and Reuse of Wood (Building) Components) is a project with partners in seven European countries, including the UK. The focus of the project is to enable the structural reuse of timber. We aim to answer the questions: “How should we build today, to be able to circulate tomorrow?”, “How easy is it to reuse wood from current buildings especially as structural material?”, “How can the past experience help the future?”
- We are in the third year of the project and have identified the key problem areas. We are now ready to propose technical and methodological solutions to address them. As a researcher on this project for the UK, with this note of evidence, I want to highlight the importance of circular timber use, especially in the built environment, and want to show how the government can contribute to the overall goal of making the UK’s building sector sustainable. For more info visit infuturewood.info
Using wood in construction
- Wood has many environmental benefits compared to other building materials. For houses timber frame construction instead of traditional masonry can reduce embodied carbon from cradle to grave significantly. Through the replacement of concrete with timber in the structure, the reduction of concrete in the foundation due to the lighter weight, lower use of fossil-based insulation and timber instead of brick cladding (Walsh and McAulliffe 2020; Spear et al. 2019). Walsh and McAulliffe find a 38% reduction in embodied carbon for single-family houses (Walsh and McAulliffe 2020). Spear et al. find that replacing masonry with timber frame construction in single-family houses leads to a reduction in embodied carbon of 1.7-3.2 t carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) and replacing concrete or steel with CLT in the structure of high-rise buildings can save 12.8 to 18.0 t CO2e per flat (Spear et al. 2019). At the same time, timber serves as a carbon storage throughout its use and has higher stored sequestered carbon than other building materials, so that 3.0 MtCO₂e could be sequestered in residential buildings by 2050, if the use of timber increases to 270k new homes per year, whereas 1.3 MtCO₂e will be sequestered if timber use stays the same (Spear et al. 2019). These studies are only two examples within a large pool of research that shows how timber can be a more sustainable construction material than traditional ones (Sathre and O’Connor 2010; Peñaloza, Erlandsson, and Falk 2016; Adhikari and Ozarska 2018; Forestry Commission Scotland 2006).
- In conclusion, carbon-intensive building materials should be replaced with wood as much as possible.
Wood is not infinite
- At the same time, we have seen the timber demand exceed the supply in the beginning of this year, which might not be a short-term trend. The timber trade federation expects demands will exceed supply for the years to come (TTF 2021) and projections of timber demand and supply between 2020 and 2050 suggest that we could be short by 3,900 Mt of timber in this time (Pomponi et al. 2020). If all the new houses were to be built from timber, the supply would only cover about 36% of the demand, according to Pomponi’s simplified global supply-demand models. Even though this scenario is “neither possible nor desirable” (Pomponi et al. 2020), the study and our current situation show that we cannot regard wood as an infinite resource. This is especially evident when considering that only around 23% percent of roundwood are processed into sawn timber or wood based panels (FAO 2018), part of which end up in construction. Nearly half of the world’s roundwood supply is used as fuel and the majority of the remainder is processed into pulp, both products for which global demand is steady or rising (FAO 2018; Hetemäki, Palahí, and Nasi 2020). Consequently, a 16% rise in demand for roundwood is projected by Hetemäki, Palahí, and Nasi between 2020 and 2050 in a “business as usual” scenario, meaning that an increased timber use would lead to even higher projections, perhaps coming closer to the world bank’s prediction of quadrupling by 2050 (FIM 2017). Increasing demand in forest products can, without counter measures, lead to sustainability issues (WWF-UK and RSPB 2020; Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020b) including the loss of biodiversity when replacing natural forest with plantations (Foley et al. 2005) and increased emissions following increasing transport distances (Ferriz-Papi, Nantel, and Butt 2016).
- In conclusion, we should only use as much wood as necessary, while ensuring responsible and sustainable sourcing.
Problems in the timber value chain
- Replacing traditional building materials with timber wherever possible, while only using as much wood as necessary, means maximising efficiently. Unfortunately, the timber value chain in the UK is wasteful in several stages:
- More than 80% of UK-grown hardwood becomes biomass for energy and heat production (Forest Research 2020), even though it could make furniture, joinery, flooring or structures (Davies and Watt 2005). Grading rules for home-grown are missing, so that structural use is complicated, and increasing demand for biomass has replaced material use in the last 15 years (Forest Research 2020).
- Not only hardwoods are affected, home-grown softwood timber is underused too, with only 30% of sawn-softwood used in construction and the majority of the rest becoming fencing and packaging (Forest Research 2020). People often see the wood as inferior to imported timber, even though it can be structurally graded and used in high-value applications (Cousins 2015; Coombs 2018). Another reason is overspecification of timber in building design, when architects or designer specify higher strength classes than needed because this is what they are used to do (Cousins 2015; Coombs 2018). Additionally, the increased demand for renewable energy from biomass lead to an 111% increase of UK-grown softwood used as wood fuel between 2010 and 2019.
- At the same time (2010-2018) the import of wood pellets for biomass energy production has increased by 1200%, from 0.6 to 7.8 million tonnes (Ainslie and Rice 2019), with imports from 16 countries, mostly the US and Canada (Aldridge 2020). But the UK not only imports pellets, but also around 70% of sawn timber (Forest Research 2020), 53% of its panel products (Forest Research 2020) and nearly all of its mass timber (Hairstans, Smith, and Wilson 2018). Timber and wood based panels imported to the UK come mainly from Europe, but also from China, Brazil, the US and other countries (Forest Research 2020). This means that sustainability and productivity issues relating to timber construction in the UK do not end at the border, since parts of the timber value chain, at least up to felling the tree, happen abroad. On the forestry side the questions of productivity and efficiency need to be balanced with other issues like carbon storage, water and soil quality, resistance to disturbances, and the forest’s function as a habitat (Pohjanmies et al. 2017).
- But not only at the beginning of the life of timber products some of their potential is lost, but also at their end of life. 4.5 million tonnes of waste wood arise annually in the UK (Wood Recyclers Association 2020), around 40% of which from building construction demolition (TRADA 2020). In 2018, only 23.4% of the total waste wood were recycled into chipboard and MDF, 7.3% were chipped to make animal bedding (TRADA 2020), and only around 1% of waste wood was reused (Wood Recyclers Association 2020). More than half was used as biomass for heat and energy production, an industry that has been growing rapidly in the last 10 years (Ainslie and Rice 2019), replacing material reuse and recycling. Between 20 and 50% of waste wood are classified by the recycling companies as grade A, clean solid wood (Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020a; WRAP 2011) which could be reused and recycled. The longer wood stays in use, the longer carbon is sequestered (Hart and Pomponi 2020) and the more we can use the virgin wood we have for products with higher requirements. Reuse and recycling options for recovered wood include building products like CLT (Rose et al. 2018), Windows (Peist 2017) or furniture, as demonstrated by UK Wood recycling centres. Ideally the wood recycling value chain is driven in cascades, as suggested by Höglmeier et al., and includes several use stages of declining material integrity and/ or quality and biomass incineration only as the last stage (Höglmeier, Weber-Blaschke, and Richter 2013). None of these reuse and cascading solutions exist on a large commercial scale and recovered wood is already under high demand, with existing wood recycling companies seeing their business threatened by the growing biomass energy sector (Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020a).
- Structural reuse of timber and wooden building elements is shown to be feasible in several case studies (Raynard and Klein 2002; Sakaguchi 2014; Poikkeus 2020; Sandin et al. unpublished manuscript), but the studies highlight that this approach inhibited by the lack of (grading) standards and certification pathways, material damage after demolition, and low demand for salvaged building materials. Demolition companies have no incentive to extract materials (not limited to but including timber) from demolitions damage-free, even though it is technically possible (Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020c). The low demand for salvaged materials (and therefore the low price-incentive for demolition companies) is mostly cost related, as new building materials are very cheap and building companies don’t have any monetary incentive to use more environmentally friendly materials (Harte et al. unpublished manuscript). This could, however, change quicker than one might think, as the beginning of this year has shown us how quickly timber can become a pricy and sought-after material (Combe 2021). This is one of the reasons why research on design for deconstruction is gaining momentum. If buildings were easily deconstructable, we could reuse building elements without the need of excessive reprocessing and therefore without much energy input and material loss. Five case studies within the InFutUReWood project, that are not yet published, show that especially offsite manufactured building components could potentially be reused with little effort and only small design changes.
Problems in timber construction
- Offsite construction does not only have advantages when it comes to deconstruction, but also in construction. Offsite manufactured systems are typically less wasteful, quicker to erect and of higher quality than on-site constructed structures, and could significantly contribute to meeting the goals set out in the government’s Construction 2025 Strategy (Hairstans 2014). Unfortunately, offsite construction is only used in around 11% of the UK’s new single-family dwellings (de Laubier et al. 2019), but is hoped to gain market share as it has been set as a core strategy in the government’s construction sector deal (HM Government 2019). The process of modernising the UK construction sector will be decisive for many sustainability issues in our future buildings. Enhancing the use of timber offsite construction and other modern methods of construction is important, but if other circular economy measures are not introduced at the same time, we will need to modernise the sector again, even before today’s buildings come to the end of their life. It is now, when we set up offsite production facilities for building components and mass timber production, that we need to also develop designs fit for future buildings, up-to-date regulations and curricula, and business models adapted to a circular economy.
- Designs fit for future buildings are not only efficient in their material use and deconstructable, but also adaptable, and preservable. Reuse, whether of timber elements or building components, is inevitably linked to material losses due to damage or remanufacturing and energy consumption from work and transport, which is why “reuse” is only the second most desirable circularity strategy after “reduce”. Reducing in the case of buildings means avoiding waste in the production, but more importantly avoiding waste from demolitions by renovating and adapting buildings for new functions. Hill et al. find that extending a timber building product’s life span has greater carbon storage benefits than cascading products (Hill et al. 2020). Wilkinson et al. state that building adaptation is inherently sustainable, is usually cheaper than demolition and can preserve the character and heritage of historic buildings (Wilkinson, James, and Reed 2009).
- But buildings do not necessarily come to the end of their life because the materials inside them are deteriorating or they are not fit for purpose anymore, but because our requirements to buildings (especially in densely populated areas) change rapidly (Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020c; Harte et al. unpublished manuscript). Buildings built today risk demolition before they reach their theoretical end of life, because they have the wrong function, size or appearance. At the same time, modern buildings are not often deemed worthy of preservation. Our case study on demolition of a building in one of Edinburgh’s conservation areas showed that residents are supportive of the demolition of the modern building, as wasteful as it is, since they feel it does not offer any architectural value and negatively affects the character of historic buildings nearby. This means that even though new houses in the UK are built to very high standards, and can probably have a longer service life than the estimated 60 years, they do not always satisfy the population and might therefore rather be demolished than preserved. Backlash is observed against new developments that are not in line with the historic character of conservation areas, shadow over existing buildings, increase the density of the development, or simply because their appearance is perceived as “unsightly” or “horrible” (Cramer and Ridley-Ellis 2020c; Townshend and Pendlebury 1999). A FJP Investment survey with 1000 participants shows that 63% of home-buyers perceive new-built houses as “devoid of character” and about half find they are in inconvenient locations or fear they lack infrastructure (MacFarlane, n.d.). Another survey by ZPG supports this view, when 36% of new home buyers mention them being “too uniform and samey” as one of the biggest disadvantages. In addition, only 10-15 % of respondents rate new built houses to “have good facilities nearby” (ZPG 2018). Even worse, Airey et al. find that only 12.5% of Londoner’s find new housing to be “built with good design and modern living requirements in mind” (Airey, Scruton, and Wales 2018). It certainly is a hard task to satisfy the public’s housing need sustainably, economically, functionally, and aesthetically, especially since tastes vary. But Airey et al. argue that people actually do “have a soft consensus over what is desirable” when it comes to architecture and aesthetics, and that pleasing these needs is part of a long-lasting solution to the housing crisis (Airey, Scruton, and Wales 2018). If we met the public’s need of building houses that provoke feelings of belonging, pride and happiness, which improves their mental health and wellbeing (Airey, Scruton, and Wales 2018), we certainly have a better chance of these buildings reaching the actual end of their service life and even being retrofitted afterwards.
Proposed solutions and the role of the government
- Sustainable buildings contain natural building materials, that inevitably have a history of being grown, harvested and processed, long before they are out into buildings. After the building’s life these materials can be reused and cascaded, and eventually incinerated for energy recovery. When we think about a sustainable building sector, we need to contemplate all these life stages of natural materials, mostly timber. Some of these stages are carried out abroad, some lie 40 years in the past and others 100 years in the future. It is therefore clear, that the UK government needs to adopt broad-range and long-lasting approaches for developing and maintaining a holistic timber value chain (or better yet: value circle) that is environmentally, economically and socially viable, theoretically forever.
- Up-to-date regulations and curricula are drawn from a central knowledge-base and continuously updated through research. A critical document that is missing to date, are building regulations specifically for timber frame construction and mass-timber construction. Approved Document A of the English building regulations states: “This Approved Document includes guidance on structural elements of residential buildings of traditional masonry construction. It is recognised, however, that there are other suitable forms of construction in use in the housing sector some of which (e.g. timber framed) have been in common use for a number of years and have demonstrated an adequate performance in compliance with the A1 requirement. Such alternative forms include prefabricated timber, light steel and precast concrete framed construction.” (HM Government 2013). Timber, as a natural building material, has certain particularities and requires different design approaches. The government should therefore publish building regulations specifically for this building material, as well as for modern building products like CLT and glulam. Adapted building regulations should allow the use of non-standard conform strength classes and alternative ways of assuring structural performance. These rules also need to be adapted by building insurance providers. At the same time, manufacturers as well as engineers and architects need to be familiarised with the unique requirements to timber processing and design, a quality that many professionals are currently lacking (Bailey 2015; Omoregie and English 2017). This will help to tackle the overspecification issues, as well as quality problems in timber houses, but we can also hope that the knowledge about the advantages of timber construction find their way into public awareness. Training for assessing timber properties in-situ also needs to be provided, to allow efficient repair and retrofit of structures. The government needs to support research efforts around home-grown timbers and new timber products.
- Efficiency in the timber value chain means using the whole potential of the material. Most importantly, this should target the UK’s biomass policy that encourages wasteful use of virgin as well as recovered timber. The government should intervene by discouraging the use of high-quality materials and the unsustainable use of any material (due to long transport, unsustainable land-use etc.) for energy production. Instead, the government should encourage the cascading use of wood, which still results in biomass incineration. Cascading can be encouraged through legally binding reuse and recycling targets (where recycling does not include backfilling and incineration); policy requirements for circular public procurement of recovered materials; and the support of circular community projects like community wood recycling or free-cycling. It is vital to create markets for recovered building materials, which will be an incentive for demolition companies to extract materials more carefully and damage-free, but the price increase for virgin timber might already tip the scale towards profitability. An important step in making recovered timber market-ready is developing grading procedures and design standards specific to recovered timber.
- Renovation should e preferred over demolition, especially when the reasons for demolition are not related to the building’s functionality. Today’s renovations could be incentivised by the government through tax incentives. When future buildings (see below) are designed, they are adaptable and deconstructable to make demolition unnecessary, and are designed to be valued by the community, to make people want to preserve them. It should be one of the most important goals of the government to support the construction of houses and neighbourhoods that people want to live in. This could be done with strategic investments, tax incentives and design policies.
- Modernising the UK’s construction sector does not stop with enhancing offsite construction. Although offsite manufacturing is certainly an important strategy that the government should support, we need to implement additional changes, to meet output and environmental goals at the same time, and for a long time. Modern timber designs should be circular, so that buildings can be adapted and deconstructed and components can be reused or cascaded. A modern construction company needs to design buildings for the future and have a circular business model (see below).
- Designs fit for future buildings should meet the public’s needs. Some strategies to achieve a greater valuation of new houses and neighbourhoods are already outlined in Scotland’s Housing to 2040 goals (Scottish Government 2021), such as “building stronger and more vibrant places” with strategies including placemaking, which involves the public designing their environment, and 20-minute-neighbourhoods, which promote more mixed demographics and a sense of community. Another strategy could be biophilic design, which among other strategies, uses the natural ability plants and wood to regulate room climate, lower blood pressure and heart rate and provoke positive feeling in people (Ryan and Browning 2018). Furthermore, biophilic architecture can reduce energy consumption of buildings, reduce the Urban-Island effect of cities, and reduce air borne pollution through green building elements (Mishra 2018). Building sustainable houses means building houses we want to live in and see in our neighbourhood, and their design and planning should therefore involve the public. This should be supported by the government by providing a platform for dialogue between planners and the community, and by supporting the public opinion with meaningful policies so they are in power-balance with investors.
- Circular business models for offsite manufacturers of timber buildings are discussed in the yet unpublished InFutUReWood Design for Deconstruction and Reuse case studies (Sandin et al. unpublished manuscript). Ideal strategies need to include more than only factory production. Timber needs to be sustainably grown and harvested, and processed efficiently. A close relationship of building manufacturers with sawmills (who often grade the timber), allows the use of piece-based grading processes that assign weaker pieces strategically to low-requirement positions withing building components. In the same way, timber recovered from demolitions or other wood waste sources could be used. If building components were designed with the possibility of deconstruction at the end of life of the building, manufacturers could implement a profitable take-back scheme for building components, including a deconstruction service. They could have an in-house assessment, repair and retrofitting department for recovered components, and balance the possibly degraded properties of some components, by mixing new and old elements. All information about materials and components could be linked to building information modelling, which would serve as a material passport, to be readily available at any time.
- The government should incentivise business developments for offsite construction with a holistic approach, for example through conditional investments and VAT discounts, but also by introducing legally binding reuse targets and enhanced producer’s responsibility schemes.
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