23 March 2020

Climate emergency: an industry response

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This is an extract from the Timber 2020 Industry Yearbook. Photo: UK Green Building Council.


Architects and other industry professionals are responding to increasing evidence of the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. In 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by around 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. Only by limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels would the worst-case scenarios of climate change be mitigated. But, says the IPCC, this will need ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities and would require ‘unprecedented changes’.


In their declaration on the climate and biodiversity emergency, otherwise known as Architects Declare, UK architects say that climate breakdown and loss of biodiversity are the most serious issues facing planet Earth. They say that, for everyone working in the construction industry, meeting the needs of our society without breaching the Earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a ‘paradigm shift in our behaviour’.


Details of the declaration

Clients and architects will need to commission and design buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating and self-sustaining system.


The declaration states that the research and technology exist to begin that transformation, but what has been lacking is collective will. Recognising this, architects have committed to strengthen working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world.


Signatories to the declaration will seek to:

  • Raise awareness of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and the urgent need for action among clients and supply chains
  • Advocate faster change towards regenerative design practices with a higher funding priority from the Government
  • Establish climate and biodiversity mitigation principles as the key measure of success
  • Share knowledge and research on an open-source basis
  • Evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown, and encourage clients to adopt this approach
  • Upgrade existing buildings for extended use as a more carbon-efficient alternative to demolition and new build whenever there is a viable choice
  • Include life-cycle costing, whole-life carbon modelling and post-occupancy evaluation as part of basic scope of work, to reduce both embodied and operational carbon
  • Adopt more regenerative design principles, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use
  • Collaborate with engineers, contractors and clients to further reduce construction waste
  • Accelerate the shift to low embodied carbon materials
  • Minimise wasteful use of resources in architecture and urban planning, both in quantum and in detail.


Similar declarations have been made by others in the construction industry, including structural engineers, civil engineers and building services specifiers. RIBA is also developing its Ethics and Sustainable Development Commission’s action plan, and has pledged to support the Government’s 2050 net zero emissions target.


Net zero by 2050

The World Green Building Council (WGBC) launched its Net Zero Carbon Buildings Initiative, which calls on companies, regions and states to reach net zero carbon operating emissions by 2030, and for all buildings to be net zero by 2050. By doing this it is hoped to limit global warming to below 2°C and ideally below 1.5°C by drastically reducing operating emissions from buildings. The WGBC says its commitment is unique in positioning building performance as a core component of strategy to ensure full alignment with the Paris agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


To facilitate progress in the UK, the UK Green Building Council has launched a programme to drive the transition to a net zero carbon built environment. The programme, ‘Advancing Net Zero’, will focus on five main areas:

  • Building consensus on a framework definition for net zero carbon buildings in the UK
  • Compiling a collection of case studies profiling projects that achieve net zero carbon for construction or operation, or which include approaches that align with the net zero carbon buildings framework
  • Developing a guide to Scope 3 reporting in commercial real estate to improve the accuracy and robustness of scope 3 emissions reporting
  • Launching the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment
  • Holding a European summit on advancing net zero emissions.


Where does timber construction fit into this? According to the UN, building construction and maintenance uses around one-third of the world’s energy, and produces around one-quarter of the planet’s greenhouse gases. However, using timber in construction can significantly reduce this impact:

  • Compared with other construction materials, such as concrete and steel, only small amounts of carbon are used to produce timber building materials.
  • Due to the exchange of carbon dioxide with oxygen by photosynthesis, wood captures and stores carbon for its entire life cycle – around 1 tonne of CO2 per 1m3 of wood.
  • The by-products of timber production – such as bark, branches and treetops – can be processed into pulp and bioenergy.


Clive Fussell, Director at design and engineering practice Engenuiti, which has signed up to the structural engineers’ equivalent of Architects Declare, says that, as with all construction materials, it is important to assess timber on a whole-life basis, with particular consideration given to re-using and repurposing timber structures to avoid the release of methane resulting from timber rotting in landfill.


‘As with all good engineering, it’s about using the right material in the right place. Timber cassettes offer advantages in long-span roof structures, CLT slabs provide acoustic and fire resistance to floors using timber sizes that would otherwise be difficult to use for construction, and lightweight framing offers an efficient speedy solution for domestic property. Increasingly, we are using CLT coupled with other materials such as steel frame to provide structural solutions to buildings such as commercial offices that have not used timber for the best part of 100 years.’


Another passionate advocate of sustainable design and construction is Anthony Thistleton of architects and signatory to Architects Declare, Waugh Thistleton.


‘It’s no exaggeration to say that using timber can save the world. The more timber is used, the greater requirement there is for forests, and large-scale reforestation can help prevent global warming. As an architect I feel very lucky that I’m in a position to do something about reducing the amount of carbon we produce.’


Sustainable forestry

Architect dRMM’s approach to adopt more regenerative principles – one of the key objectives of Architects Declare – is about the promotion and practical application of timber.  As dRMM Director Jonas Lencer says:


‘Sustainable forestry management is going to be a really important step for how the world reduces its carbon footprint. If you look at it from a global scale, using as much timber in construction as possible is vital in mitigating the industry’s impact on climate change, because more trees will be grown and cared for, resulting in more long-term carbon sequestration. However, we also need to look at the biodiversity element, the cultural element, the issue of land use – all things that will require the promotion of using varied species.’


Together with the American Hardwood Export Council, dRMM has researched the development of tulipwood CLT, a softwood alternative with fast growth contributing to carbon sequestration. The practice is also minimising the wasteful use of resources in its designs – another objective of Architects Declare – by working with design for manufacture and assembly and modern methods of construction principles in timber.


dRMM has also been working with the London Energy Transformation Initiative, writing guidance for designers to accelerate the application of low embodied carbon materials.


‘There needs to be a shift in how we do things collectively, rather than trying to push timber into the current construction model – which we believe isn’t working,’ says Lencer. ‘We need to re-think the processes the entire industry uses and facilitate a shift in values towards a circular economy.


‘As a practice we also see value in the potential of hybrid systems, of using timber where it’s best placed to be used in conjunction with other materials where needed and necessary. We need to find unique ways to collaborate between the timber industry and other industries, like steel and concrete.’


According to Andrew Wylie, Partner at BuroHappold, which is a signatory to the structural engineers’ declaration, using timber in new-build construction is only part of the solution – there’s a growing move to repurpose and/or refurbish buildings, such as extending storeys on top. Given its relatively light weight, timber is ideal for this.


It is not just all about carbon, says Wylie. There is the potential of an ecological crisis, too. That is where the advantages of timber shine through, with certification schemes such as those run by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC®) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC™), together with appropriate chain of custody certification through the supply chain.


BuroHappold itself is meeting the goals of the climate emergency declaration by looking at projects holistically, starting with the question ‘do we need a new building at all?’ It then looks at the fundamental design of a building in the context of a tight ‘carbon budget’ before addressing the question of materials, of which timber certainly provides gains in embodied carbon. To help it meet climate change objectives, the practice is also investing in tools to assess the different options and to account for carbon use.


There are many fine words and good intentions from the architectural and engineering professions on building and using buildings with a reduced impact on climate and biodiversity. And it is clear that timber can play a role in constructing buildings with increased carbon sequestration and reduced production of greenhouse gases. It remains to be seen, however, whether these initiatives will translate into the huge, collective effort needed to make a difference on the ground to our planet’s future.





This is an extract from the Timber 2020 Industry Yearbook. Download the full article, including supporting images, references and further reading, here


Article written by Ron Alalouff.