The architect’s view
Tim den Dekker is an architect and a director at Lignum Risk Partners, a consultancy that provides business and risk management consultancy services to the broad UK construction market with a specific focus in the sustainable building sector.
Here is his thinking as to why now is the time for timber.
I am an architect and I have been working as an architect for about 12 years. I also previously trained as an actuary. I have experience in management consultancy and risk management for major global financial companies. My expertise as an architect is in healthcare buildings, educational buildings and public buildings.
How can we reduce carbon in the construction process?
Reducing your carbon can be done in a number of ways, constructing lightly, reducing the amount of materials in your buildings, but also choosing the right materials. Timber is naturally one of those choices because timber sequesters carbon – so carbon locked up – and it’s a renewable resource and, if done properly, it allows you to reduce your carbon footprint in the construction industry.
What are your concerns in reducing carbon in construction?
One of the concerns that I have is that there appears not to be a level playing field between timber, steel and concrete, where the insurance industry has given the green light to steel and concrete, but has given the red light to timber!
What are the issues with insuring timber construction projects?
I see that that there are problems and not just with the insurance industry. There are problems with the construction industry which have been exposed by Grenfell and there are problems with the UK building regulations which, for example, are not aligned with the interest of insurers. The UK building regulations set the standards for protecting life safety or are calibrated to achieving life safety standards so that people can get out of a building alive and safely in case of a fire, for example. Insurers want to protect their property, so if you build to the minimum regulatory standards, you don’t have an adequate amount of protection, so the conversations also need to be held with regulators as to clarifying what they mean by the regulation.
How do we move forwards?
We need to build to a better standard than just building regulations. We need the industry to come together to develop those standards and come to agreement on minimum standards, in this case, for timber constructions and those standards would not just be for design. They ought to be also for construction, monitoring the actual process of putting buildings together; the design is followed and that minimum standards are upheld and we clearly need standards for maintenance of buildings. Once the building is in use, one of the major hazards is moisture ingress and the companies that manage buildings and their workforces need to have adequate training to identify potential problems and be authorised to resolve them quickly and those resolutions may often involve insurance companies, so that process also requires attention to make sure that happens swiftly.
How does the industry come together to resolve this?
Industry coming together requires everyone to appreciate there is a common goal and understand what the impediments to them achieving insurance at commercially attractive terms are. At the moment, there are a number of areas where there are a lack of standards, in design, in construction and in maintenance and use. I don’t think there is a clear appreciation across all players in the industry that all the areas that need to be considered. I think there is a lack of appreciation of where the risk lies. There appears to be tremendous emphasis on fire and fire risk. Fire risk catches the headlines, but the rest that don’t catch the headlines, such as moisture ingress and damage from moisture. We don’t see that, but I understand that tallies up and causes the majority of losses of insurance companies, so we need to understand the risks across the spectrum.
How does the construction industry improve its relationship with insurers?
There is very little difference between the approaches of fire engineers in the UK to timber and fire. I understand they generally agree 90% of their message is in alignment, but I understand it is where there are differences, those get picked on and I think the industry needs to present itself as a unified face to the outside world, whether it be to the insurers or to the regulators and to clearly state the message about the safety of timber construction and demonstrate that and quantify that.
How hopeful are you that we will see the increased use of structural timber in construction?
I am very hopeful that we will see more use of timber in construction simply because there are so many people looking at it now. We are seeing the timber associations, the various timber trade bodies, putting more attention into the weak points and identifying where the blockers are. We are seeing the fire engineering profession converging and understanding that a clear and consistent message needs to be made and we are seeing the need for government to cooperate more, to provide a regulatory environment that encourages sustainable building products; and of course, we have alternative risk transfer mechanisms, alternative means for accessing capital to protect companies financially through alternative risk transfer solutions. I understand that those have historically been used in similar situations where industries are stressed by the lack of insurance. So, I’m quite confident that a solution exists.