Renewability and wood - decisions you can make to be kinder to the environment

Jun 23, 2020

Nicole Bittar


Kindness as a collective whole is an underrated virtue. In relation to sustainable wood, one small step from mankind can result in one giant leap for the environment, as Griffith University urban and planning lecturer, chartered town planner and multi-awarded creator and presenter of ABC Radio’s “The Urban Squeeze” series, Dr Tony Matthews, attests. The bigger, brighter, more benevolent environmental picture frames national, global and biodiversity issues.  

“We are broadly concerned with climate-change management and that includes mitigation by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and also adapting to that which is upon us or more likely to come,” Tony says. While the sum of their parts are equally pertinent, focusing on any one area, such as water quality or pollution levels, may contribute towards short-sightedness in the broader view.

“Our concern recently shifted heavily towards environmental health and human health within the environment,” he says.  While headline issues shift in immediacy, there remains an underlying focus on climate change, industry efficiency, reducing pollution and renewable energy, Tony says. “In global satellite and landform images recently, there appears to be an increase in global green cover, which is not what anybody expected, but that’s history emerging,” Tony says.

The prognosis for long-term environmental health presents a mixed outcome. “We have many problems that we’re dealing with; we’re doing well with some of them, not so well with others and, ultimately, it becomes a resource-allocation issue. There is an unlimited demand for intervention and help for the environment, but a limited supply of resources, time and opportunity — and that also changes over time,” Tony summarises.  

In his specialty field of urban planning, Tony says the focus of previous decades was on the effects of air pollution and water pollution, as a result of overdevelopment, but from the 1990s onwards, the impetus moved towards climate-change response. “The focus of planning was on density, tying together where people live and public transport and trying to reduce suburban sprawl,” he says.

Not only has climate change been emphasised in the past 20 years by mitigation or greenhouse gas-reduction issues, but also “much more forcefully in the past 10 years, particularly, into climate-change adaptation.” For example, localised satellite mapping has pinpointed natural vulnerabilities that are specific to a certain settlement, region or zone. Tony says these vulnerabilities have included coastal erosion in Sydney; riverine flooding (“when Brisbane went underwater in 2011”), extreme heat and other natural crises. The objective of satellite mapping is to help amend, alter or prevent the onset of further environmental adversity.

“What this has also highlighted is the need for better building materials, and this is where wood comes in,” Tony says. “There is greater renewability with timber and wood because, if it is sourced responsibly from well-managed plantations or forests, you can replenish what you use. That’s a lot different from producing steel, glass or concrete, which have a huge environmental footprint in the production process — much higher than timber, in fact, and they aren’t renewable ” Tony says.

Ultimately, the feel-good qualities of timber, in an individual, industrial and environmental sense, offer long-term gains. “Timber has all these unique qualities. For example, as a tree is growing, it’s producing enormous environmental benefits. It’s capturing carbon, cleaning the air and providing habitat. Then, it can be used as a low-energy building material, which is more sustainable and offers a variety of features throughout the life of a building. And there’s a growing trend towards recognising and doing this, and using timber as a primary material for internal spaces and external cladding,” Tony says.

The potential for a widespread uptake of timber in commercial construction depends on creating an industry to adopt sustainable wood as the ultimate renewable. “The construction industry will move in response to the development industry,” Tony says, “so if the development industry is emphasising the utility, value, environmental performance, beauty, warmth and renewability of timber, and starts demanding that it becomes a more primary building material, then the construction industry will follow.”

Innovations in timber materials, including engineered timber systems, such as cross-laminated timber, laminated veneer lumber and glued laminated timber, are making headway in this area.

“Timber is renewable, reliable, locally sourced; it has good environmental performance before it ever becomes a finished product. It promotes psychological wellbeing; it’s good at temperature regulation; it’s a malleable material — there’s many, many good reasons why you would use it,” Tony says.


Project: Marrickville Court House

Design: David Boyle Architect