The resurgence of timber in European building
Who wood have thought it? Centuries after Europeans largely abandoned it in favour of more fire-resistant, stronger and more ‘modern’ alternatives, timber is showing signs of staging a comeback on the continent’s building sites, notably in large-scale building projects.
For discerning customers across Europe, wood has always held a strong attraction as a versatile yet chic material for internal and external finishing. While pan-European statistics on the use of timber in construction are hard to come by, Fourth Door Review (No. 6, 2003) estimates that wood currently accounts for 2% to 3% of building materials, but it is gaining popularity in France, Germany and the UK.
Renowned European architects such as Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers have been incorporating wood into their modern ‘Eco-tech’ wonders. At a recent seminar in London, Royal Institute for Building Architects president Maxwell Hutchison went as far as to float the question whether wood had become ‘the new glass’. Vahik Enjily of the British building research organisation BRE one-upped him claiming that in about ten years time wood will play as big a role as steel and concrete in building (GoodNews, Summer 2003).
A host of impressive large-scale projects completed during the last decade can attest to Scandinavia’s position as pioneer and driving force in European timber building – not altogether illogical given that the majority of the continent’s forests are located in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Completed in 1998, Gardermoen airport near Oslo, Norway, demonstrates the awesome and beautiful potential of wood that can now be harnessed using various new environmentally-friendly production techniques. Similar results can be seen at the Sweden’s Universum, an environment and science centre in Gotherburg, and Sibelius Hall, an upscale performance centre in the Finish city of Lahti.
Proponents are quick to point to timber’s positive assets as a reason for its growing popularity. Architects and builders have long been aware that people are drawn to its warmth and calming properties. At the same time, wood is light, weighing on average only a fifth as much as comparable quantities of concrete. Modern gluing and production techniques mean that builders do not have to compromise in terms of strength either. Nor does it break the bank as the lower production, extraction and transport (due to its lightness) costs often make wood cheaper than more common building components such as steel and glass.
The most convincing arguments for a timber-build revival stem from wood’s top-notch environmental credentials. Wood is a truly renewable resource. While supplies of minerals and metals are limited, forests can be replanted. In this respect, wood production requires only a quarter of the energy needed to make concrete, and just a fraction of that needed for aluminium, steel, plastic and brick. Furthermore, instead of creating damaging greenhouse gases, wood is what is known as a carbon sink. Trees extract carbon dioxide from the air, locking it away in the buildings, furniture and other wooden objects thus cutting down greenhouse gas emissions.
The building industry could use a boost of environmental-friendliness. In several European countries, such as Finland and Germany, construction accounts for 40% of Europe’s energy use and 50% of all waste production. Governments across Europe are waking up to the problem and new legislation is appearing in which the ‘ecological footprint’ – the total environmental impact – of building projects is being more closely scrutinised.
But when it comes to the building game, the environmental card is both wood’s strongest and weakest suit. Theoretically, the above-mentioned factors should make wood a hands-down winner when it comes to choosing eco-friendly building materials. However, niggling practicalities continue to tarnish its green credentials and keep its long-term success hanging in the balance. As Fourth Door Review points out, one such obstacle is the gluing technique required to produce wood capable of bearing the enormous loads involved in large-scale building projects. The absence of effective green glues will continue to rob wood of its full eco-friendly potential in the short term.
A more complicated and further reaching issue is the limited application of sustainable forestry practices, which continues to destabilise eco-systems around the world. Europe has been forced to manage its timber since the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire; with the original forests cut down, loggers had to make sure they replanted what they cut. However, other areas of the world are less regulated. The harvesting of tropical timber, such as teak, is contributing to the demise of priceless rainforest in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. Further north, loggers on Canada’s west coast are decimating ancient forests in search of the mighty redwood cedar, while their Russian counterparts are hacking away at the primary growth forests in Siberia. Far from Europe’s backyard, one might think. However, who can guarantee that builders won’t switch to cheaper, eco-unfriendly imported timber if the demand for wood on the continent begins to rise significantly?
The full magnitude of the problem comes into view when one considers that the current global annual rate of deforestation is 10 million hectares according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation.
But progress is being made. As GoodNews reports, experts now estimate that reforestation programmes in Germany have succeeded is restoring the country’s forest coverage to levels comparable to those last seen in the Middle Ages. A recent study by the Brazilian ministry of science and technology indicated that the deforestation of the rainforest decreased by 13% in 2002, as opposed to an average annual increase of 5% over the years 1998-2000.
The question begs whether Europe will succeed in establishing policies and platforms to ensure that the continent’s builders and consumers fuel their growing demand for wood with certified sustainable forestry. The benefits of building with wood are difficult to ignore. If Europeans can succeed in remaining true to the principles underlying their own sustainable forestry practices, we may just yet see a timber-build renaissance in the old world.