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Wood: The future of the sustainable construction industry?

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Few materials in the world have the same environmental benefits as wood. As climate change becomes an increasingly hot topic, wood is undergoing a quiet resurgence in the construction industry. Man-made materials leave a massive carbon footprint whereas wood uses significantly less energy. It’s versatile, renewable and could become a key resource in the future.     

Building with wood has many advantages. It can be formed into various shapes, it’s renewable and energy efficient. 75% of the energy used in the manufacturing of wood products comes from recovered wood or wood residues. This is minimal compared to producing other building materials, such as concrete and steel, which consume 12% and 20% more energy than wood respectively.

A study found that when wood replaces other materials in buildings, there is an estimated substitution of 1.6 tonnes carbon dioxide per cubic metre of wood material. So, wood can cut down on carbon dioxide while providing some of the same functionality as steel and concrete.

To achieve carbon neutrality, a wider use of renewable resources is essential. One of the great benefits of wood is that it has multiple ‘lives’. Trees and wood-based products absorb carbon through photosynthesis and release oxygen into the air. At the end of its first life, wood can be recycled, reused and used as a carbon-neutral source of energy. For example, doors and timber materials can be reused as can pallets and packaging.

Once the wood can no longer be reused or recovered, it can still generate energy through incineration. The natural lifecycle of wood enriches the environment and helps to mitigate the greenhouse effect. Roughly around a tonne of carbon is stored in every metre cubed of timber. In fact, if we built 200,000 new houses from timber, the material would store 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Using more wood in construction projects can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Also, wooden interiors in the home have positive health and well-being effects. A study by non-profit organisation, Make it Wood found that being ‘surrounded by wood at home, work or school has positive benefits on the body…’ – including lowering stress, reducing the heart rate and lowering blood pressure. Wood products within a room have been shown to improve air quality, by moderating humidity.

New technologies have made the wood-building process easier. Cross Laminated Timber (TLC) is one of the most promising wood panelling products. It’s made from gluing industrial dried-lumber together at right angles. It was developed in the 1990s, but it was only in the 2000s when CLT became more widely used. British architect Michael Green, a dedicated supporter of utilising wood, completed a 6 storey CLT building in Prince George, British Columbia. Prefabricated wood has an array of benefits for the construction industry. It can be assembled in 30% less time, which saves money for building owners and contractors.

One of the main arguments against wood, however, is that the material may pose a fire risk. But wood is not nearly as flammable as you may imagine, especially when it’s prefabricated. CLT is made to be highly durable, long-lasting and fire resistant. Some critics have pointed out that wood is only sustainable when it’s harvested. Its important primal forests are preserved for the future and more trees get planted to help the climate.  

When it comes to construction, wood has become a top material for green builders. For a sustainable future, more wood needs to be used in structural innovations. If managed properly, wood could pave the way for more widespread environmentally-conscious building practices.

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