Why wood buildings stack up

“Developers are looking for an extra edge that helps them get to market quicker and more affordably. Timber is that edge,” says Wood & Grieve Engineers’ principal Alasdair MacKerron.

In cities of glittering glass, steel and concrete, the idea of timber buildings may seem reactionary. But a revolution is upon us as timber buildings tall and small crop up around the world.

According to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, there are more than 50 timber towers proposed, under construction or operational globally. Among these are 5 King in Brisbane and Forté in Melbourne, both projects developed by Lendlease. In May Lendlease promised to build in timber on each of its new Australian developments.

MacKerron is currently working on a large commercial development in Perth, where cross-laminated timber is the preferred option on one building. But this is far from his first foray into the world of wood. He spent the first part of his career working on projects in the United Kingdom, which included several timber buildings.

“If you look at the trend around the world, massive timber construction started slow in most markets and then took off. We’ve seen exponential growth in timber construction in Europe, the UK and now we are seeing the buzz grow in Australia.”

But why wood?

MacKerron points to the compressed construction schedule, reduced labour and enhanced safety from manufacturing offsite as obvious benefits.

“Once you get on site it goes up very quickly. On one school project in the UK, we delivered the building an entire term earlier than if we’d used traditional construction methods.”

The environmental benefits are equally compelling. A tonne of concrete used in high-rise construction emits a tonne of carbon during production. In comparison a tonne of wood stores almost two tonnes of carbon over a building’s lifetime.

“As an industry we’ve been very focused on bringing down operational energy in buildings and done so very effectively. But there’s been little attention paid to embodied carbon. Timber can help us address that.”

MacKerron also believes timber can support the residential sector as it tackles housing affordability and entices more Australians to apartment living.

“The location and level of finishes sell apartments. If we can build an apartment structure at less cost, then we can spend more on the features that will make the apartment more attractive to buyers,” MacKerron says.

MacKerron believes the sustainability credentials of timber will also attract the next generation of home hunters. “I think the carbon benefits of timber will become increasingly important to environmentally-conscious buyers,” he says. “People may not pay extra, but they will see timber as a point of difference.”

What’s holding timber back? MacKerron points to capacity and conservatism within the construction industry – both of which will be resolved as the market “sees that timber works”.

MacKerron doesn’t blindly advocate timber, though.

“Engineered timber is not the panacea for the property industry. Some buildings need to be concrete and steel. It’s got to be the right product for the right development.

“But keep an open mind and ask yourself: does timber stack up on this project?”

When you consider the construction timetable, safety, cost and carbon, the answer may well be ‘yes’.

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