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Global policies on timber in construction should inform UK approach

Words:
Stephen Cousins

Europe, Scandinavia and the USA provide key lessons on how UK decision makers can increase the uptake of timber in construction, study finds

Goldsmith Street is a timber frame scheme of 100 sustainable, community oriented socially rented homes for Norwich City Council, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2019. Photographer: Tim Crocker
Goldsmith Street is a timber frame scheme of 100 sustainable, community oriented socially rented homes for Norwich City Council, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2019. Photographer: Tim Crocker

A comparative study of global policies that encourage the use of timber in construction has highlighted approaches that could inform the UK’s future efforts to decarbonise construction.

The report Timber Policy, commissioned by trade association Timber Development UK (TDUK) and written by Waugh Thistleton Architects, examines policies implemented in Germany, The Netherlands, Denmark, France, Finland and the USA.

It aims to give the government ‘exemplar guidance’ on how to deliver its Timber in Construction Roadmap, published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) at the end of 2023, which outlines the opportunities and barriers to increasing the use of the low embodied-carbon material in England.

Unlike the UK, certain other countries have explicit policies to promote building in timber, often related to public buildings. According to the report, France has committed to delivering at least 50% of public buildings using biobased materials, the Netherlands has targets for public buildings and its capital Amsterdam has set a target for one in five homes to be made of timber.

The Black & White Building was recognized as a ‘pioneering achievement’ of timber construction in the Wood Awards 2023, where it was a double winner. Photographer: Jake Curtis
The Black & White Building was recognized as a ‘pioneering achievement’ of timber construction in the Wood Awards 2023, where it was a double winner. Photographer: Jake Curtis

The assessment or control of embodied carbon from buildings is not yet regulated in the UK and calculating a building’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) with consistent and reliable results can be complex. However, governments in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland ‘are providing centralised tools and systems to ensure comparable results in LCAs,’ the study states.

Turning to efforts to boost supply chain skills and competency, the report notes that the Netherlands, Finland and France have implemented policies that both attract new entrants into the timber industry, and encourage up-skilling or re-skilling the existing workforce for low carbon methods.

Countries are also implementing policies intended to boost sustainable domestic supply and the timber processing sector. For example, the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture’s Charter for Wood 2.0 advocates for the sustainable use of wood from managed forests as a means of meeting national climate change targets.

In the UK, changes to Part B of the Building Regulations banned the use of structural timber in the external walls of residential buildings over 18m tall, which has affected confidence in using timber for residential multi-storey construction.

The Phoenix is a proposed development of a 7.9 hectare brownfield site within the South Downs National Park, brought forward by Human Nature, a campaigning development company, working with some of the UK’s leading architects, designers and engineers.
The Phoenix is a proposed development of a 7.9 hectare brownfield site within the South Downs National Park, brought forward by Human Nature, a campaigning development company, working with some of the UK’s leading architects, designers and engineers.

In contrast, international policies show how to safely design and construct residential buildings in mass timber, says the report. These include building codes in the USA and Finland that address fire prevention in mass timber buildings. The USA is prescriptive on the use of specific structural materials, while Finland requires additional testing for timber structures.

Furthermore, the study highlights global policies that encourage collaboration with insurers, lenders and warranty providers. These include CircuLaw, in the Netherlands, Timber Construction Ambition Plan 2030, in France, and Finland’s National Energy and Climate Strategy.

Andrew Waugh, director and co-founder of Waugh Thistleton Architects, said: ‘While we commend initiatives like the Timber in Construction Roadmap, our research reveals that current UK efforts fall short of addressing the urgency of the climate crisis. Bold leadership, as demonstrated by progressive nations such as France, Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark, mandating limits on embodied carbon and investing in sustainable timber projects, is essential for a meaningful transition to a low-carbon future.’

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