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Here Andrew Carpenter, Chief Executive of the Structural Timber Association, looks at where the timber construction sector currently stands and where it could go next.

The use of timber in construction has received increased attention in recent months and years. As the issue of sustainability and climate change has become more acute, we are seeing many architects, contractors, housebuilders and clients looking at how the use of low carbon materials can be expanded. Timber has been at the forefront because it is a versatile material that has a long history of use in construction.

In fact, feedback from our members shows a marked trend towards the use of timber frame, with private developers in particular investing heavily in timber-based offsite construction. Several key housebuilders have acquired businesses in their own supply chain to secure manufacturing capabilities. For example, in 2018 Countryside acquired the Westframe timber frame manufacturing facility and Barratt Homes purchased Oregon Timber Frame the following year. In Scotland, Miller Homes acquired Walker Timber at Bo’ness to expand its business. Persimmon Homes also has its own timber frame manufacturing arm, Space4.

We are also seeing an increase in demand for timber solutions within the affordable and social homes market. For example, L&Q Homes has formed a strategic partnership with Stuart Milne Timber Systems to increase its delivery of timber frame homes. Furthermore, the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing Programme, launched in 2017, provides funding to support low carbon affordable housing. The most recent round of investment saw £35 million pledged to deliver 400 factory built homes, with many being built using timber frame.

While some parts of the world, including Scotland, already have a long-established and very successful heritage of building in timber frame, England is still very much reliant on masonry. Therefore, for timber systems to become used more widely, the first hurdle will be overcoming the culture within housebuilding that focuses on ‘traditional methods’ as well as the hesitancy around alternative methods.

A big part of this will be raising awareness about the benefits of timber, particularly with regard to its ability to contribute to Net Zero Carbon, which is becoming increasingly urgent. While traditional building methods are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050, timber offers the opportunity to achieve net zero now. What’s more, with the use of timber now enshrined in the Government’s Build Back Greener strategy, more widespread adoption of structural timber seems inevitable.

Embodied carbon emissions account for up to 75% of a building’s total emissions over its lifespan. This can be reduced significantly using the right low carbon materials, and timber products have the lowest embodied carbon of any mainstream building material. In fact, every cubic metre of timber used in construction has absorbed 1 tonne of carbon dioxide, which will be stored for the lifetime of the product. Increasing the use of timber in construction, is the quickest and most effective way for the UK to deliver on its economic, employment, housing and climate targets without delay.

In addition to housebuilding, one of the biggest potential growth areas is the public sector. Engineered timber solutions such as CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) have huge application potential for public buildings. In 2019, the Government announced the Health Infrastructure Plan, which includes a commitment to building 40 new hospitals by 2030 and a focus on Net Zero, digitalisation and Modern Methods of Construction. Under the plan, schemes must include 70% offsite construction, which leans heavily towards timber as the primary building material, in order to secure funding.

We are also seeing timber increasingly used as a solution to limitations on space and the pressure on brownfield sites in urban areas. Many developers are looking to maximise residential capacity by adding extra storeys onto existing buildings, particularly in heavily populated areas. Thanks to its lower weight and high strength, engineered timber is an ideal material for achieving this without needing to make significant reinforcements to the building’s foundations.

Offsite manufactured engineered timber also has further advantages for reducing the impact on the local environment. One of the key benefits of offsite construction is reducing the number of vehicles going to a site. The use of timber enhances this further as the lower weight compared with other materials allows more to be safely transported on each vehicle. Lowering the overall weight of the building also means smaller foundations and less excavated material that needs to be removed.

With so much potential and a wide range of opportunities to expand the use of timber, the coming years will be an exciting time in the sector. However, it is important for the Government to continue to support the use of timber, modern methods of construction and the development of low carbon innovations.

At the STA we are actively working to promote the benefits of timber to the wider industry, overcome the barriers to its widespread adoption and are committed to helping our members take advantage of the push for low carbon construction.

For more information about using structural timber or working with an STA member, please visit: www.structuraltimber.co.uk

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