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The case for timber in the construction industry

Timber prefabrication during construction of 25 King, Brisbane

As at July 2019, the global population is estimated at 7.7 billion, and studies predict that by 2024, it’ll reach eight billion. To put this growth into perspective, to cater for and house these individuals we’ll need an additional two billion square metres of building stock annually for the next six years alone.

The construction industry’s predominant material of choice is concrete, with more than four billion tonnes of cement produced every year, accounting for an estimated 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. To bring the cement sector in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, its annual emissions will need to fall by at least 16 per cent by 2030. We need to radically rethink the way forward if we want to engineer our ongoing survival.

Timber: the future of construction?

Over the past decade, timber has emerged as a viable mass-scale complement to traditional materials in the construction industry. The proliferation of Mass Engineered Timber (MET) products, along with the growing stack of socio-ecological advantages to timber tall buildings, suggests that this industry is on the rise. The benefits to timber applications are versatile and far-reaching, including reduced carbon consumption and CO2 emissions, biophilic design, and reforestation as a sustainable methodology to fuel ongoing supply and demand.

As design techniques and materials continually improve within the timber sector, could we envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when concrete and steel take the industry backseat, and timber arises as the dominant material in the global construction industry? What would it take to move the needle on such an historic industrial norm, and to facilitate a radical re-shifting in industry, economy, and ideology towards a net zero, timber future? It’s not impossible, to say the least, so it’s time we give this conversation the gravitas it’s due.

The current state of play

Currently the construction, operation and maintenance of Australia’s built environments account for almost 25 per cent of their total greenhouse gas emissions. Concurrently, the Australian government has pledged to reduce emissions, on a per person and emission intensity basis, to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. But with Australia’s population growth ranking 19th amongst 95 developed nations worldwide, the obvious question is, “Is construction conventionality poised to deliver on our Paris promises?” Short of rigorous reform and sizeable investments into renewable alternatives, the answer will most definitely be no.

The benefits of timber

Wood is a compelling third option because of its wide array of versatile benefits that should be carefully considered and weighed up. Wood offers the opportunity for carbon sequestration, as well as sustained carbon mitigation (provided a quality forestry stock is well managed to keep generating a yield). The tight envelopes of mass timber buildings, along with their natural insulating properties, make these tall buildings strong thermal performers. They are a natural partner to high performing and efficiently serviced Passivhaus buildings. Timber’s strength-to-weight ratio competes with that of steel, but its lightweight efficiency reduces the load on foundations and improves structural performance.

Not surprisingly, timber buildings provide access to nature in a way that increases positive thoughts and personal wellness, which in turn improves productivity and long-term health. Most notably, wood lends itself to off-site prefabrication, whereby panels can be efficiently designed and manufactured off-site, and easily installed on-site. As compared to the complex and labour-intensive process of concrete construction, timber could offer a more agile and speedy solution for building our city spaces in ways that are lighter, faster and safer.

The barriers to timber’s adoption

Despite all its benefits, there is still immense resistance to adopt timber as a mainstream construction material. Why is that? Generally, there is a misconception that timber ultimately cannot circumvent threats like fire, pests, moisture and precipitation over time. While these concerns are understandable, they are increasingly outdated and misinformed. Research and Development (R&D) is constantly pushing new technologies to market that mitigate these inherent weaknesses and design for strengthened resilience with these challenges in mind.

But R&D will remain crucial, as we strive to unlock further efficiencies that will make the argument for timber, and in particular, off-site construction, more compelling.

Our next steps

In the meantime, we need to champion successful projects as touchpoints to engage industry in a more thoughtful discourse concerning our sustained future. Projects like Aurecon’s 25 King Street, Australia’s tallest and largest engineered timber office building, is a success story worth telling. All nine of its timber floors showcase the power of timber buildings to host out-of-the-box experiences, cutting-edge innovations and human-centric design on a mass, sustainable scale.

We also need to invest R&D into better systems of automation that will improve the pace and efficiency of our off and on-site construction. At the moment, cranage is one of our biggest challenges because they represent a slow, and often cumbersome part of the construction process.

A change of approach by companies like Aurecon can also play an important role in bringing mass timber to the market. Traditionally, engineers have a default setting to ‘solutionise’, rather than co-navigate alongside clients to deliver custom solutions that address the problem at hand. As part of Aurecon’s commitment to offer fresh, value-add solutions that forego formulaic thinking, timber and off-site construction will most definitely feature as a viable, exciting option for alternative building design.

Concrete still reigns supreme, but if we invest in timber’s potential and develop its renewable capabilities over the next decade, we are well on our way to reaping the benefits of a more sustainable construction material for our future buildings.

About the Author

Ralph Belperio is Aurecon’s Major Projects Director, Built Environment. With expertise in timber engineering, he has more than 30 years’ experience in the design, documentation and delivery of commercial, industrial, institutional and residential buildings and developments.

Originally published on LinkedIn: “Will timber be the disruptor that the construction industry has been waiting for?” by Ralph Belperio.

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