Wednesday, 26 March 2008


We’re just in the process of finalising the details for a conference in Liverpool called Form>Wood. Its focus is on timber as a sustainable design and construction material and the event is a partnership between the Northwest Forestry Framework (which I chair), the Northwest Development Agency, Forestry Commission, Community Forests Northwest and Capital of Culture. 

We’re aiming for a mix of architects, developers and timber industry representatives, we’ve got Ted Cullinan delivering a keynote address and we’re staging it at the newly re-opened, sublime Bluecoat on 15 May.

The principle aim of the event is a simple one. We want more people commissioning, designing and building with wood, timber and trees at the forefront of their minds.

Why? Because the buildings we live and work in, through their construction and then through the energy we use to heat or light them, account for over a quarter of our region’s carbon emissions. For the residential sector alone, this represents 17 million tonnes of carbon, a figure which the Northwest has committed to reducing by at least 7 million tonnes by 2020.

Trees, woodland and the timber industry can play a pivotal role in helping us tackle climate change head on, whether it is reducing our energy use or helping us adapt to the changes in climate which, no matter what we do, cannot be avoided.

Imagine, for a moment, asking a team of talented engineers to invent a single device that could absorb and then lock up carbon, provide a carbon neutral building material or energy source, help stabilise vulnerable soils, provide a flood management system and offer a source of shade and cooling as the planet’s temperatures begin to rise.

And then imagine asking them to make it a beautiful and inspiring object too, one that created a wildlife habitat and pollution filter, to boot.

It’s a simple and powerful proposition. Trees and timber offer a sustainable and immediate solution to a host of climate-related challenges. Using wood as a building material, from timber frames or cladding through to entire constructions made from wood, has to be a priority for architects, engineers and developers who want to take climate change seriously.

The low energy solution

How much could this save? A significant amount. Replacing a single cubic metre of concrete or red brick with the same volume of timber can save around one tonne of carbon dioxide. Concrete uses five times as much energy to produce as wood; steel uses six times as much. If you expand this out to an average two-storey dwelling, using a timber frame alone could save four tonnes of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to driving 14,000 miles by car. If the 26,000 additional households forecast for the Northwest by 2026 were all built in this way, we could save over 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, through timber frames alone.

The switch from materials with a high level of ‘embodied’ energy such as steel or concrete is just one way in which wood can help reduce the carbon footprint of our building stock, but wood is also a good insulator, too, whether used for frames, windows or cladding. Timber’s natural insulation properties mean that double-glazed or even triple-glazed windows for example can achieve the highest energy window ratings, beating alternatives such as PVC or aluminium.

Europe’s great carbon ‘sink’

Using wood as a construction material also increases the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by Europe’s standing forest, this is because more than 99 per cent of the timber used in the UK is softwood from European forests and as these forests are managed sustainably, we plant more new trees every time we extract timber destined for sawmills and processing plants right across the continent. In fact, European forest cover is increasing by over 9,000 square kilometres every single year.

Add to the product mix the other environmental benefits of wood: it is organic, enhances biodiversity, can be easily recycled and avoids the need for quarrying and the extraction of aggregates, and you have an unbeatable case for timber as a truly sustainable construction material.

A growing market

The market is starting to see the value in wood. Timber frame housing increased by 15 per cent in 2005, for example, while other types of construction actually saw their markets decline. Timber framed housing now represents 20 per cent of new build and the projections for 2008 are that one in every four homes built will be timber framed, but we could do much, much more. Globally around 70 per cent of homes are built, often entirely, from wood and as close to home as Scotland, the market share for timber framed housing is a much healthier 73 per cent. We have ample scope for improvement.

We can do more with timber today, too. Traditionally timber framed houses could reach two or three storeys at most but these levels are increasing to five, six or seven stories and with engineering performance increasing all the time, the industry research body TRADA expects these performance levels to increase still further. The construction times for a timber framed building are shorter, too and they offer a safer, more efficient construction site with a typical house being weather tight in less than five days.

The beauty of wood

The materials are available, the environmental credentials are strong and the research shows that wood can perform when compared to the heavier, less sustainable alternatives. The challenge now is to achieve a significant ‘step change’ in the commissioning, designing and building of homes and workplaces that are made all or in part, from wood. Wood is certainly getting some good press. Ted Cullinan, keynote speaker at the Northwest Forestry Framework’s ‘Form>Wood’ event and RIBA Gold Medal winner this year is known for his timber constructions, in particular the Downland Gridshell in West Sussex.

Architects like Sheppard Robson are developing affordable new housing forms - such as the Lighthouse - out of wood and in the Northwest region have shown how spectacular wood can be through their proposed wood cladding of a car park in Penrith. Wooden buildings in the Northwest are also winning awards, with the Feilden Bradley Clegg-designed Formby Pool collecting a RIBA award in 2007.

And I used to live in an award-winning wooden building myself until we decided to start crazily renovating crumbling piles of brick as I was one of the first buyers to sign up for Stephenson-Bell’s superb Chorlton Park flats complex. Just along from our offices in the Northern Quarter, BDP’s new HQ is close to completion and is beautifully clad in wood.

What these great, innovative designs reveal is that building from wood offers a real opportunity from public buildings and cultural venues through to the new houses we know we will have to construct as our demand increases for new homes regionally and nationally. The beauty of wood - aside from its obvious aesthetic credentials - is that it offers a more sustainable future for developments both large and small.

The form really should be wood.