Decarbonizing Heavy Industry: 3. Wooden Buildings

“According to a 2017 Global Status Report by the United Nations, buildings and the construction industry are responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions (aviation, by contrast, clocks up just 2.1%).” The Financial Times1

That’s because you need huge amounts of energy for all three stages needed to construct buildings and build infrastructure. Not just to actually make what you’re building, and to then maintain, heat, cool and light it. But to physically produce the materials you need to be able to make it. Because around half of those emissions come from the CO2 embedded in the steel and concrete needed.

And what’s true of engineering and construction is just as true for all industry. After all, the whole of manufacturing depends on functioning buildings and infrastructure to be able to operate.

So industry as a whole is looking at three areas in its drive to get to net zero; green steelgreen cement and wooden buildings.

‘Glulam’ and cross laminated timber

Wood has always been used in construction. But today, planks of timber are being engineered by being dried in a kiln, and then glued together, compressed and laminated to produce ‘glulam’. When you then stack the resulting timber so that the direction of the grain alternates, you get cross-laminated timber (CLT), which is as strong as steel but is 80% lighter.

So it requires far less energy to transport and put up, and produces less noise pollution in the process. Furthermore, computer imaging means that it all arrives prefabricated, having been constructed specifically for the pillars, floors, beams and panels they’re needed for. Which further reduces waste, noise and the time needed.

What’s more, not only does timber not produce CO2 in the form of waste, it captures and stores it from the atmosphere. So instead of seeing the CO2 in the wood you’ve used released through decay or from being burned, it’s sequestered in the building you’ve produced.

Wooden buildings: the challenges

Obviously, the way you produce timber has to be done in a sustainable way. So whatever trees you cut down have to be replaced with replanted ones, and where and how you do that will have to be done sustainably.

More generally, wooden buildings depend on a ready supply of locally produced timber. There’s no point planning them in places timber needs to be transported to. So you’re unlikely to see too many multi-storey wooden buildings in the Middle East.

And, at least in Europe, that supply has been significantly compromised after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As much of Europe’s supply of trees, though not all of it, comes from Russia. And because of which, the cost of timber has skyrocketed globally.

But the main caveat when it comes to wooden buildings is of course fire. But that’s really more a reflection of our cultural past than it is of the facts on the ground.

Because of long-remembered past disasters like the Great Fire of London, in 1666, and the earthquake that hit San Francisco in 1906, and the fires that resulted, there’s a general sense that constructing houses out of wood is a recipe for disaster. And the recent fire at Grenfell Towers in London, in 2017, simply served to reinforce those fears.

But those towers were covered in cladding made from aluminium and plastic, and that horrific event had nothing to do with wood. The fact of the matter is, the glulam and CLT used in modern buildings has been shown to be as fire-resistant as concrete. Extensive testing has shown that that sort of engineered timber doesn’t burn, it chars. In much the same way that a heavy log left on a small open fire does.

As Oliver Morton, senior editor and climate expert at The Economist, says,

“Wood can be pretty much fire-proof these days, and it’s got incredible mechanical properties.” The Economist 2

The huge growth in wooden buildings

Which is why we’re seeing the current surge in the use of timber across the globe. In 2020, France’s housing minister said that all new public buildings would need to incorporate wood or other biological materials. While Amsterdam has decreed that, from 2025 on, twenty percent of all new buildings will need to be made predominately from bio-based materials.

And there’s been a noticeable increase in the planning and building of multi-story buildings made from timber. Vancouver will soon have numerous examples, including the Earth Tower, a 40-story apartment block with a rooftop garden. As well as a new home for the Vancouver Art Gallery, designed by the famous architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron.

While New York’s equally famous SHoP has designed a 40-storey wooden tower in Sidney, for the tech company Atlassian. And a slew of multi-story wooden buildings and towers have been built and are being planned for across Scandinavia.

Your ESG metrics

The reason why all those architectural, engineering and construction firms are turning to the likes of timber is that it’s not possible any more to continue to be profitable and keep churning out all those emissions.

The EU, the U.K. and Canadian governments and many of the states in the U.S. simply won’t permit it. And an ever-growing number of citizens, consumers, investors and shareholders won’t want to deal with you if you continue to try.

Increasingly, companies will need to demonstrate both that they appreciate how important it is to get to net zero. And, that they’re actively doing something about it. So more and more, they’re going to be relying on their ESG metrics, and on the fact that those metrics are accurate, as proof of how seriously they’re addressing all of this.

And the only way you can collect and manage all that data reliably is by employing the right software solution.

Find out more about Cora’s software solution for manufacturing.


  1. “Is the city’s future wooden?”

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