UN report pushes for wood in construction as Tasmania develops timber-first policy

Using wood and wood-based materials in construction and products in place of non-renewable materials like concrete, metal, brick and plastic could lead to a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The July 2016 report, titled Forestry for a low-carbon future: Integrating forests and wood products in climate change strategies, has highlighted the important role that green or resource-efficient wood-based buildings will play in the transition to a sustainable built environment while delivering economic benefits.

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In 2010, the building sector was responsible for about 32 percent of global energy consumption, 19 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions and 51 percent of global electricity consumption, according to the findings of the report.

The report says increasing the use of wood in construction and building products will result in lowering greenhouse gas emissions because of wood’s ability to store carbon, and because of the low level of emissions released during the industrial processing of wood compared to manufacturing other materials such as cement and steel.

In Australia, the report says, “the average use of wood products per unit of floor area […] has notably decreased significantly over time. Potential therefore exists increased mitigation benefits through increased use of wood products in buildings.”

Shearer's Quarters by John Wardle Architects on Tasmania's Bruny Island uses timber as a key material.

Shearer’s Quarters by John Wardle Architects on Tasmania’s Bruny Island uses timber as a key material.

Image: Trevor Mein

The report comes as Tasmania is in the process of developing Australia’s first timber-first policy, with recent changes to the National Construction Code allowing for timber products like cross-laminated timber (CLT) to be used in building projects.

The timber-first policy will see “Government projects encouraged to use more timber products, which will promote a shift towards viewing wood as a first choice for construction, interior design and daily living.”

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The Tasmanian state government also announced $1.25 million to go towards a Wood and Fibre Processing Innovation Program, to help develop innovative uses for wood and fibre, and increase the use of timber and agricultural residues to create value-added products.

Director of the University of Tasmania’s Centre for Sustainable Architecture with Wood, Greg Nolan, told ArchitectureAU that wood is very broadly accepted in domestic construction and buildings up to two storeys, but for buildings past this height there is generally a switch to steel and concrete solutions.

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One of the benefits of having a timber-first policy is saving on costs during the early design stages. “[Without the policy] if someone does a [design] sketch and they predicate it all on steel and concrete, that’s what they get costed and it progresses beyond an initial stage, and as soon as someone comes along and says, ‘Well what would this be like if we were to make it out of wood?’ then we’ve got a problem because we’ve already designed it based on steel and concrete sizing […] so we’d effectively have to redesign the [building], which then applies another layer of costs for the client,” Nolan said.

An increase in timber use also means more effort must be put into sustaining Tasmanian forests. Nolan said previous schemes have failed due to their emphasis on planting trees, rather than growing trees.

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“There [have] been millions and millions of trees planted under many schemes where people have planted the tree and the tree hasn’t survived two years. The thing we need to do is actually grow trees - planting is just one part of the exercise,” he said.

In May 2016, the federal government announced $2 million for a National Institute of Forest Products Innovation research hub to be located at the University of Tasmania’s Launceston campus. The hub aims to explore ways to grow the forest and forest products industry.

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