The truth behind timber: part 1.


Louis Chaumont, Will Belfield & Gael Vilatarsana

Building better.

Timber is one of the oldest construction materials on earth.

As the demand for buildings has grown exponentially over the last century, we have had to build bigger and taller. High-rise and mid-rise buildings became more prevalent, and the structural integrity of timber was deemed insufficient. Subsequently, its use has primarily been limited to low-rise developments.

But now, with the development of engineered mass timber, large-scale timber towers have been rising up across the world during the past few years, and are cited as one of the key construction trends for the next decade.

So why should we embrace this new focus on timber vs established construction materials?

Major benefits.

Mass timber has major sustainability, aesthetic, wellbeing, and programme advantages. It also offers a similar structural strength to concrete despite having a much lighter mass. This allows for much more flexibility when it comes to projects with complex sites, such as a restricted foundation capacity or existing load-bearing structures.

But is mass timber’s current use as widespread as it should be, given all its advantages? The answer is a resounding no.

This somewhat slow adoption is down to a lack of understanding about the structural and fire behaviour of engineered mass timber; with its most common forms being cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (gluelam), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), and nail-laminated timber (NLT).

A general lack of experience in using these materials (from all parties involved), plus general public misconception, and a slow-to-adapt insurance market, all add to the fact that the well-established concrete and steel industries are still usually preferred.

A reassurance role.

However the above limitations are fully surmountable, and come from a lack of understanding and knowledge as opposed to any major disadvantage. As such, it’s our duty as built environment experts to promote the adoption of this advantageous material on more projects.

In this series, we’ll be exploring the variety of benefits that mass timber construction can provide, as well as shedding light on the misconceptions that have held back its widespread adoption so far.

The bigger picture.

As we all look to the major challenges society and our industry faces in the coming decade, it’s clear timber construction has to play a bigger part. Firstly, healthy and happy communities are more important than ever. Timber is, of course, a natural material and there are biophilic benefits from a health and wellbeing perspective. In workplaces, research suggests that the presence of wood contributes to increased employee satisfaction, reporting better concentration, optimism and productivity while reducing stress levels.

More importantly, with the built-environment responsible for 39% of the world’s Carbon Dioxide emissions, its responsibility and role in the tackling the climate crisis is a pivotal one.

Ultimately, with the UK target of all new-builds achieving Net Zero Carbon by 2030, timber’s uniquely strong credentials are impossible to ignore.

Look out for part 2 coming soon, where we’ll discuss the sustainability benefits of timber buildings in more detail.