An opportunity missed

Despite concerted efforts from industry action groups and commentators to draw attention to shortcomings in the proposals, the Government’s response to the Future Homes Standard consultation has fallen woefully below that which is required to enact real change in the journey to Net Zero, argues Andrew Carpenter from the Structural Timber Association (STA).

First and foremost, the fact that embodied carbon is not mentioned once in the entire 114-page document, is a glaring omission that represents a significant missed opportunity to reduce the overall carbon consumption of the housebuilding industry. With the Government still insisting that it hopes to build 300,000 new homes each year, reducing the upfront carbon emissions generated by the materials manufacture of these projects would have a meaningful impact on the total carbon footprint.

Instead, the response focuses on building services and prioritises the use of low carbon energy sources. However, we firmly believe that this is a back-to-front approach, as operational CO2 emissions account for only a small portion of a home’s overall carbon cost. A much more logical tactic would be to shrink the overall carbon footprint, by reducing both the embodied carbon within the construction materials and the energy consumption in use, through significant building fabric improvements. After all, switching to low carbon energy sources is of little value to homeowners if they’re still required to pay extortionate sums for the same amount of ‘clean’ energy – building homes that are engineered to use less energy in the first place is a simpler way of lifting future generations out of fuel poverty.

What’s more, the move comes in spite of industry consensus towards an embodied carbon approach, as set out by the signatories of an open letter to Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government. Orchestrated by ACAN (Architects! Climate Action Network), the letter calls for embodied carbon to be given due consideration, pointing to the significant contribution it will make to the carbon emissions of future homes.

Signed by more than 700 prominent members of the architectural community, it states: “The carbon emissions associated with a building’s use only make up a percentage of its total carbon footprint, with embodied carbon (the emissions associated with materials, construction and refurbishments) making up an ever greater share. Embodied carbon needs to be measured and declared as well. This is known as a ‘Whole Life Carbon’ approach to construction and should be applied to all construction projects to represent their true carbon cost.”

While it’s encouraging to see that the Government has taken steps to ensure new homes will no longer be reliant on fossil fuels and has listened to some of the feedback from industry – such as retaining the Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard (FEES) – the lack of regulatory incentives for reducing embodied carbon has the potential to de-rail carbon reduction efforts, by masking the true cost of new housing developments from a CO2 perspective.

By encouraging wider use of lower carbon building materials – such as incentivising a timber-first approach – the Government could take advantage of the ‘low hanging fruit’ by reducing the overall carbon expenditure of new homes from the very outset. As well as being a renewable material, timber provides an effective carbon store, particularly when used on an industrial scale. This is because as trees grow, they trap and store carbon dioxide, removing it from the wider atmosphere – indeed, timber absorbs more carbon during its growth than is emitted during processing and installation.

It’s bewildering to us at the STA that, in the face of such industry agreement, the Government has not seized this opportunity to set the housebuilding sector firmly on the right trajectory to achieve Net Zero by 2050. That is why, in the light of the omissions from the Future Homes Standard, we emplore the Government to reconsider its stance.

We believe it’s more vital than ever to highlight the importance of embodied carbon and to demonstrate the value of using low-carbon, structural timber. What’s more, it’s crucial that the housebuilding industry recognises that it is not obliged to follow this outdated line of travel and that, as long as regulatory requirements are met, it is able to carve its own path towards delivering better quality and greener housing. After all, why wait until Government thinking catches up when timber solutions are ready now, offering a quicker, more reliable and more sustainable solution to the climate crisis?

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Timber industry to make its case at COP26

In our latest Time for Timber podcast, Andrew Carpenter, Chief Executive of the Structural Timber Association, sat down with Paul Brannen, Director Public Affairs CEI-Bois & EOS, to discuss the most important event happening in 2021, COP26.

What is COP26?

The 26th Conference of the Parties, or COP26, will see the leaders of the world converge to decide how best to tackle the global crisis of climate change. For these leaders, whom have supreme decision-making capabilities, finding and agreeing upon the necessary solutions to combat this threat at COP26 are crucial to turning the tides back in our favour. Meetings between leaders are frequent but once every four years, one nation hosts a larger conference spanning two weeks. For COP26, this responsibility falls to the UK, with Glasgow hosting the event commencing on November 1st and finishing on November 12th. Since the previous major Conference of the Parties, hosted by France in 2016, the targets set have not been met, making it ever the more vital that solutions are found in Glasgow.

What is the Timber industry hoping to achieve at COP26?

Regarding sources of carbon emissions, the construction sector is responsible for anywhere between 40 and 50 percent. During their conversation, Paul Brannen highlights that it is therefore the duty of the construction industry to reduce that figure, whilst expressing his belief that timber provides the key means in which to do this. Paul discusses what he calls the three S’s, those being sequestrate, store and substitute. As a tree grows, carbon within the atmosphere is captured within the tree itself, this process is known as carbon sequestration. Once a tree is felled and processed into building materials, the sequestered carbon remains stored within the wood. The production of building materials such as cement and steel are particularly high emitters of carbon, by substituting them with timber, the environmental impact of construction is immediately lessened. These are the core messages that Paul wishes to present to the politicians attending COP26. As he states, utilising timber within construction is low hanging fruit.

How are those campaigning for timber planning to grab the attention?

As Paul explains in his conversation with Andrew, COP events are a political conference and a trade exhibition hybrid. An allocated area of the event known as the ‘green zone’ offers organisations and associations an opportunity to literally set up stall, and promote themselves to politicians, journalists and general visitors. Collectively the timber industry, at a global level, have placed their bid to the British Government, expressing their desire for a space at COP26. However, as Paul details, the timber industry has big plans on how they intend to showcase what they have to offer. Currently, plans for a purpose-built timber pavilion are being put together by a well-known British architect. The aim is to incorporate various engineered timber products within its design, to demonstrate the vast number of applications that timber possesses as a building material. The belief is that this visually stunning centrepiece will draw politicians and visitors in, so that they can be educated and informed about the structural solution to climate change that is timber.

As Paul draws his input to the conversation with Andrew to a close, he says: “We have to remind ourselves that everyday hundreds of people come to this issue completely new, and they’re the people we need to think about first and foremost”. COP26 presents a fantastic opportunity for the timber industry to showcase, to the leaders of the world, the vast environmental benefits it has to offer. Why wait, the time for timber is now. To hear the entirety of Paul’s and Andrew’s discussion about COP26, you can find the full podcast here.

Following on from the light and heat of the US presidential elections, has the world woken up to a greener future? As a campaign that is committed to achieving net zero by 2050, we welcome the news that Joe Biden will be the next president of the USA. His commitment to climate change and the return of the USA to the Paris Agreement and, coupled with the UK hosting COP 26, will make 2021 a very important year. With China’s pledge to bring emissions to net-zero before 2060, and the EU, Japan and South Korea’s commitments to reach net-zero by 2050, a tipping point is being approached that puts the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C limit within reach. Too early to celebrate? This gives us hope, as this positive news seems to be either the culmination of the focus on net zero, or the start of the beginning, especially for the financial sector.

It is notable that on the on the first working days after the election we saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, launch the UK’s first green gilts. This is seen as a move to increase the UK’s low-carbon credentials, ahead of COP 26. The ‘green sovereign bonds’ are a form of borrowing that can fund low-carbon infrastructure projects, similar to those already in use in Sweden and Germany. This follows on closely from Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England, commenting, “compared to the financial crisis and the pandemic, the risks from climate change are even bigger and more complex to manage,” and  “our goal is to build a UK financial system resilient to the risks from climate change and supportive of the transition to a net-zero economy.”

At the same time Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of England was hosting the Green Horizon Summit, a view on restructuring world capitalism to help tackle climate change, supported by the World Economic Forum and the Green Finance Institute. As part of the agenda on day 1, construction features, with a panel discussion, ‘The Built Environment – Financing the Net-Zero Transition’, at which the point to be debated was that ‘The built environment is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK and yet this sector has significant potential to decarbonise and unlock wider benefits across the economy.’

Putting construction onto the agenda is a move much welcomed by the Time For Timber campaign as we see the world of finance and insurance take note of their significant role in financing the future of sustainable construction, to meet the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero by 2050.

All of this points to green shoots for the green economy, one which we support given that it is our main campaign image that has been used in magazines, on billboards and on-line. We are at the very beginning of the process as the main stakeholders get on board and make their plans.

It isn’t the time to be complacent. If all the sectors that are responsible for producing carbon, from energy generation, to transport and freight, through to food production and of course construction, do their bit and we all pull together, we might just get there.

For years, the climate change movement was led by the so-called ‘eco-warriors’, a myriad of non-profit organisations and dedicated small investors who shared a collective desire to drive change within big companies. They protested outside business headquarters, filed shareholder resolutions and spoke out at annual meetings in order to valiantly make their points.

Large investors, in contrast, largely remained silent — at least in public. However, in the wake of the Paris agreement, a rising number of large investors now seem highly alert to the investment risks of global warming. As of 2020, this group seems to recognise that drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions represents good business sense. Delaying action on emissions, will only mean more radical intervention is needed in the future at greater financial cost, and with larger impacts on society. Plus, by taking action now, companies can plan to achieve long-term, sustainable economic growth from a low-carbon economy.

As a result, it’s no longer a question whether climate change will dominate our lives and economies in years to come. Recent announcements from the likes of the World Economic Forum, the Bank of England and leading blue chips like Microsoft, which demonstrate that climate risk has moved centre stage into the world’s most influential boardrooms only furthers the point.

To this end, the world’s largest companies now forecast nearly $1 trillion at risk from climate impacts. Conversely, the same companies have identified $2 trillion in opportunities from investments into sustainable business areas, such as low carbon technologies. Therefore, for the business community, climate change has become a thing of now and not a thing of the future. Across modern boardrooms, daily discussions focus on how companies can meet climate challenges, as well as making the best use of any potential opportunities.

However, making the most of these opportunities requires foresight and investment. To this end, financial institutions, banks, investors and insurers must understand the risks they face in order to move to the next stage and build for the future.

In spite of the global pandemic, 2020 has proved to be a landmark year for investor action on climate change, with significant resolutions being passed and investment pouring into sustainable funds. With both regulators and clients increasingly calling for change, asset managers are now broadening their remit beyond energy-intensive industries such as oil.

Rather than driving investor attention away from climate change, the pandemic has cemented interest, with many investors fearing the economic fallout seen during the pandemic could be replicated if the world fails to halt global warming. Up until the outbreak, there remained a significant portion of the investor base who believed tackling climate change could wait until tomorrow. Fortunately, this has now changed. Companies and investors are starting to look at the importance of acting immediately.

With major corporations now being held accountable for their climate change responsibilities, more and more blue-chip companies and investment houses are talking up their need to invest sustainably. For example, Microsoft, Unilever, Nike and six other multinational giants have teamed up to establish a new initiative aimed at helping businesses reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The project, entitled “Transform to Net Zero”, will provide companies with practical and science-based guidance to help build a carbon neutral global economy. This radical transformation will require significant changes at the board-level, starting with how companies approach investments. Similarly, the program will look to transform methods of production and delivery, as well as the real estate and buildings inhabited by all those in the supply chain.

In launching ‘Transform to Net Zero’, these multinational giants have gone some way in following in the footprints of Apple, which is now the world’s largest company. For some years, Apple has led the way in renewing its sustainability commitment. In fact, the company has announced plans to reach 100% zero carbon emissions across its entire supply chain and product line by 2030. Moving forward, there’s no reason to suspect this continued focus on decarbonisation will change.

As an organic, natural material, wood can breathe and maintain a comfortable and healthy indoor climate.

The use of timber in construction is known to have numerous positive effects on human health, proven in various studies. People working in environments with more wood are observed to show lowered heartbeat rates, a decreased perception of stress, decreased blood pressure and increased interaction. A closer connection to such a natural material can only help to promote a feeling of warmth, security and home and an overall sense of wellbeing. In creating safe environments, employees and an increasing number of studies point to workplaces that are more productive and have lower rates of absenteeism and sickness.

Timber as part of the circular economy; the safest and most effective carbon store.

Currently, the construction industry represents around 10% of total UK carbon emissions and directly contributes to a further 47%. As a result, the industry finds itself in a position of great responsibility and influence with regards to the nation’s climate change efforts.

As timber trees grow, they naturally absorb carbon, which continues to be stored when the material is transformed into structural timber products. Timber absorbs and stores more carbon than it emits during processing and installation. These engineered solutions act as an effective carbon store when used as part of a building. When the building has reached the end of its use, this stored carbon can either be re-used as fuel, or will naturally filter back into the soil. By comparison, the use of concrete and steel within construction leads to considerably more energy and carbon usage. To this end, a report published by Chatham House (Making Concrete Change: June 2018) show that cement is the source of 4-8% of total global carbon dioxide emissions. Conversely, more carbon dioxide is absorbed and stored within timber products than is emitted during its harvesting process, manufacturing and transportation combined.

In fact, when used instead of other building materials, a single cubic metre of timber will save around 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. With such strong green credentials, it’s clear to see why so many organisations are embracing timber. Not only does the material provide strength and aesthetic beauty, but offers an effective solution in battling climate change. In fact, boroughs like Hackney in East London are now demanding a ‘timber first’ policy when it comes to building specifications. Similarly, the French government recently announced new sustainability legislation to help make the country carbon-neutral by 2050. The new law, which becomes enforceable in 2022, will mandate that all new public buildings in France are built from at least 50% timber, or other natural materials.

In his speech on the 30th June 2020, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson underlined his commitment to “build, build, build” as part of efforts to upgrade Britain’s infrastructure network. Furthermore, Mr Johnson identified the nation’s existing skills gap and the need to close it in order to better fuel a full economic recovery across the country. As such, the Prime Minister’s ‘New Deal’ announcement has clearly put jobs and infrastructure at the centre of the government’s economic growth strategy.

This impactful speech reaffirmed the government’s election commitments to build more homes and reinvest in the NHS. Additionally, with his closing statement, Mr Johnson recommitted the government to its Net Zero targets and placed construction at the heart of this effort, commenting:

“To that end we will build build build. Build back better, build back greener, build back faster and to do that at the pace that this moment requires”.

There is every reason for climate strategy to be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds as they shape the stimulus needed to reboot the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, many economists rank green stimulus measures amongst the most beneficial for the nation, as well as being the best for the environment.

With a need to rebuild after the crisis, as well an opportunity to tackle unemployment and grow the economy, it will be critical for private capital to fund infrastructure investment across the nation and to be able to offer adequate insurance cover for the build process and beyond.

In June 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

The target requires the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with its previous target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels. The UK has already reduced its emissions by 42%, whilst growing the economy by 72% and putting clean growth at the heart of its modern Industrial Strategy.

As well as appreciating the financial benefits involved in supporting sustainable projects, banks and insurers must begin to assess the future costs they’ll be liable to, should extreme weather and rising oceans become more common. Ultimately, these companies hold their own destiny, as well as their future profitability in their own hands. Therefore, as the UK and the rest of the world begins to recover from the shock of COVID-19, it’s possible that the next global shock could have much more catastrophic and irreversible implications.

The increased use of timber can only be a positive in that it provides for a better built environment for generations to come by pushing towards a net zero economy and allows for future proofing of projects throughout their lifecycle.

From enabling a circular economy, to contributing over £8.5 billion to the financial system and subsequent employment opportunities, through to providing a carbon sink and enhanced health and wellbeing benefits and beyond, timber needs to be at the heart of construction. The increased use of timber in construction will help improve the way we live, beyond the current dilemmas of the pandemic, a recovering economy and the looming climate crisis.

Timber offers a timeless, stable solution for construction. From its earliest use in cathedrals, churches, manor houses, barns and farms and family dwellings to the more immediate future where short-life parts of a building can be changed. A timber construction’s total lifespan can be extended, to suit the flexible way we will be living in the future. In fact, many of the schemes that have been shortlisted in the Home of 2030 Government initiative, are centred around the use of timber, as a sustainable, scalable, carbon neutral material that is adaptable for offsite and modern methods of construction and that it is a flexible, re-usable material.

In addition to using timber as part of the structure of a building, it can also provide benefits beyond its structural integrity, as timber offers improved thermal insulation and acoustic performance. In particular the thermal performance of any building is key at present, as achieving net zero needs to take into account the energy usage required to heat and cool buildings. The Government’s Future Homes consultation launched in October 2019 outlined changes to Parts F and L of the Building Regulations, which govern energy efficiency and ventilation, meaning that thermal performance requirements are likely to become increasingly tighter.

With this increasing focus on efficiency, the use of timber frame construction can offer external walls with high thermal insulation for a relatively slender thickness. More recently, the timber-frame industry has moved from using 90mm to 140mm external wall studs. This increase provides additional space for installing insulation. In addition, the use of reflective breather membranes are used to effectively block infrared radiation, which enhances the thermal performance of the airspace, and consequently increases the overall U-value of the construction.

Well-insulated, airtight timber frame buildings work well in summer, keeping daytime heat out – an important consideration in a country that is experiencing year-on-year temperature increases. Traditional masonry buildings have a thermal mass which sees them absorb heat through the daytime. On the contrary, lightweight timber structures do no absorb heat well. This means that timber buildings don’t contribute to the build-up of heat to the excessive and uncomfortable night-time temperatures many people experienced in 2020, with tropical nights on the rise with Britain experiencing 16 evenings above 20 degrees, as masonry walls released their stored-up daytime heat. In the winter months, timber frame buildings are quick to respond to heat. The high thermal mass properties of materials like concrete and bricks mean that a lot of energy is required to change their temperatures. Without this heavy energy absorbing internal structure to heat up first, occupants in timber frame buildings benefit from a fast heating response, while benefiting from low heating bills too.

Timber as a construction material goes beyond the structural provisions of mass timber, as it is adaptable and provides a quicker, quieter and safer construction for time and cost savings. Beyond its use timber can re-used and easily disposed of or can be  recycled into other streams such as pulp and paper, or even used as a fuel.

Using a truly sustainable material, offering high insulation values, quality construction and good air tightness, new timber frame buildings are well placed to meet the evolving needs of planet earth and its occupants.