Author: David Rowlinson
Article originally published in Timber and Forestry E-News.
FEW people would say they like living near a conventional building site, and for councils approving developments hearing from those who don’t is almost inevitable when a development application for a large conventional concrete and steel building goes on display.
But if they follow through on the resolution passed at last year’s National Congress of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA) to adopt wood encouragement policies, they may find those issues evaporate faster than CO2 getting sucked into a river red gum.
What many builders, councils and even foreign sovereign wealth funds are starting to recognise is that growing trees and then turning them into buildings, internal fitouts, furniture and fixtures is a major opportunity to resolve a whole raft of pressing issues.
Latrobe City Council councillor Sandy Kam initiated her council passing Australia’s first local government Wood Encouragement Policy in December 2014.
Ms Kam also promoted the idea to other councils and proposed the resolution passed by ALGA.
She pointed out that a typical urban infill apartment development, for example, built using concrete and steel means a massive workforce, lots of noise, dust and mess, concrete trucks and other suppliers coming and going and a major impost on the amenity of everyone nearby for months on end.
By comparison, the 10-storey Forte building at Docklands was assembled from pre-fabricated cross laminated timber (CLT) panels by four carpenters in 40 days.
Study after study is showing that these buildings are not only faster and easier to build, they are also cheaper – which is good news for both builders and those commissioning them. Wood encouragement policies adopted to date are in council areas where there is an existing resource and timber industry.
Kyogle Shire, for example, passed its policy in November 2015. The council felt it made sense to promote the use of its local resource and industries, which include the Hurfords, Hogans and Boral mills. All are producing hardwood products suitable for construction or fitout.
Wattle Range Shire Council in South Australia and Wellington Shire Council in Victoria have also formally adopted similar policies.
Brad Gray, director of campaigns for Planet Ark, said Bunbury Shire Council in Western Australia was currently looking to develop a policy, and Tumut and Tumbarumba Shire Councils on the edge of the NSW Snowy Mountains had also drafted policies.
Mr Gray said for these councils there was an economic motive, but there were other councils where it was coming to be seen as a way of meeting published sustainability targets.
City of Sydney, for one, is warming to the idea and getting an understanding of the benefits of wood, Mr Gray said.
Sandy Kam said her passion for timber comes from a wish to see her local area better utilising the resource on its doorstep.
“It’s a resource that has a number of applications,” Ms Kam said. But it wasn’t a resource the council had been asking consultants on its projects to consider before the policy was put in place. Now, timber, including engineered timbers, must be considered for any suitable application in a council building, and where it meets the required codes and standards it is to be used in preference to conventional steel and concrete construction.
‘I thought, let’s be fair. We have all these resources, so let’s make it a level playing field’: Sandy Kam.
She said the shift towards timber was also about “celebrating the beautiful architecture” it could deliver. The need now, she said, was for more education of builders, developers and the general community around the benefits of timber and the possibilities the new engineered timbers such as CLT, LVL and glulam offered.
There are other potentials too, such as nanocrystalline cellulose derived from timber, which is being investigated for advanced manufacturing to replace metals, glass and plastics in some applications.
Timber is also a material that can help mitigate climate change and improve sustainability. Overseas, she said, there are places where it is being mandated that open spaces be planted with trees for future use in construction.
Another consideration for her council is the need to transition to a low carbon economy, which could see the region’s coal mining industry scale back. Value-adding to a resource like timber is possibly a way forward.
Ms Kam said it is important that any construction project using timber ensures it is using products that are certified, so users can be certain they have the right product for the job.
At Latrobe, the preference is to first look to procuring products locally, then if required on a state level, or a national level. Imported products are their last resort.
She said she wants to see the governments at a state and federal level coming on board with wood encouragement.
On one front the federal government has, with the news that the revised National Construction Code that comes into effect in a 2016 will allow timber buildings up to eight storeys in height without the need for the cost-intensive process of documenting the project as an alternative solution.
Planet Ark’s CEO Paul Klymenko says Northern Europe in particular is more advanced in its use of timber for tall buildings. This is not only because those countries developed the mass engineered timbers like LVL and CLT, but also because they have taken the issue of climate change quite seriously early on.
“Europe has had a net increase in forest cover about the size of Austria and Germany combined,” Mr Klymenko said.
“They are always looking for low emission materials that also emit less carbon during manufacture.
“The tree is a master of photosynthesis, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it in their trunks.”
Mr Klymenko said that as momentum in Australia builds around the need for European-style multi-use, medium density urban development around transport hubs, he hopes to see them being built of sustainable timber, not concrete and steel.
“It is such a compelling case for timber. It meets the sustainability criteria that investors are increasingly having to meet. It’s also cost-effective, and technically much more attractive, for example truck numbers are reduced, and you can prefabricate offsite, he said.
“It’s also better for the environment. There are very few things that can tick all those boxes.”
Planet Ark research director Sean O’Malley said that when people in Europe were asked about the issue of fire safety in timber buildings, they “roll their eyes”.
“It’s been tested, and tested, and tested,” he said.
“In a bush fire, what survives are the big trees. They char on the outside, and that protects them.”
The same effect has been observed with mass timbers. They char very slowly on the outside, but retain their structural strength.
By comparison, steel is quite unpredictable”, he said. “When it is heated it loses strength, but there is no certainty about when it will collapse. It is also prone to buckling in a fire, and it is a far more difficult matter to repair fire damaged steel and concrete than damaged CLT or LVL components.”
“At the end of the day, we have to create a sustainable society, and that includes environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.”
Mr Gray said that wood construction in Australia is “coming in around the side entrance.” The sustainability aspects are only one part of the equation.
The decision to use timber for the award-winning Library at the Dock in Melbourne was motivated the difficult geotechnical conditions of the site. The lightness of mass timber construction compared to steel and concrete took away the need for deep foundations, creating both a cost and time saving.
“The momentum is building with architects and builders, there are a few that have the expertise and understanding,” Mr Gray said.
The two barriers he sees are financiers of projects that do not understand the material, and concerns around fire, something he said insurers have also raised.
But with Australian CLT factories coming on line in the near future, one by Lend Lease that will use CLT from off shore to prefabricate building components, and one being launched by New Zealand’s XLAM that will produce a domestic CLT product, he believes the momentum will escalate.
“One of the benefits of engineered timber is it doesn’t need highly specialised wood. In Australia for producing CLT you only need to grow the pines for 15 years, whereas it takes 30 years in Europe due to different growing seasons,” Mr Gray said.
“The Australian plantation industry is well set up for dealing with this stuff. The industry will benefit from this it is such a great opportunity.”
Mr Gray said that in contrast to fossil fuel investments, which were now rated as risky, forestry was being viewed as a good investment. There were many overseas sovereign wealth funds and superannuation and pension funds looking at investing in forestry, he said.