ADAM Architecture responds to Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research on Timber Cities for the future

September 8, 2022

Using more wood in construction of our towns and cities must be “direction of travel” says ADAM Architecture director Robbie Kerr.

“It would be encouraging if our new Prime Minister agreed that this made good sense too.”

A recent study published last week in Nature Communications on the increased use of wood for urban development must be “the direction of travel, and we are well down that path already.”

The study Land use change and carbon emissions of a transformation to timber cities’ by scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that 149 million hectares of new forest would need to be planted globally to provide for 90% of new housing requirements in towns and cities, saving 100 billion tonnes of carbon emissions by 2100.

Robbie Kerr says:

“Timber construction has been with us since time immemorial. Whilst we have developed alternatives that may be seen to be easier or more resilient such as concrete and steel, both of which entered construction and design in volume in the mid-19th century, we are now also seeing an upswing in the use of timber including ‘mass timber’ and cross laminated timber. Understanding traditional ways of designing and constructing buildings using timber is vital however if we wish to make greater use of this resource in the future.

“There is definitely a balance to be struck. Timber is not right for every situation and there are many other ways that the construction sector, acknowledged as a major source of carbon emissions, can scale down its carbon footprint - more sourcing of local materials, reduction of waste, extending the lifespan of buildings and re-use/retro-fit of existing stock where suitable. But timber use is definitely a significant part of this transition also.  From an architect’s perspective sustainability and more efficient and holistic building design are all important parts of the bigger picture and we all need to consider and incorporate these. It would certainly be encouraging if our new Prime Minister agreed that this direction of travel made good sense too.

“Whilst wood materials have the benefit of being a carbon store the negatives associated with ‘wooden cities’ need careful consideration too – we will need to increase our forest resource, both hardwoods and softwoods, exponentially and there are carbon ‘consequentials’ with regard to forest planting, harvesting and replanting. There is also the cost of transport of materials - where it is grown and processed may not always be where it is required - but also real opportunity to use tree planting to restore otherwise neglected areas. And, as cited in the Potsdam Institute paper it is important that tree planting does not impact negatively on our global capability to grow and produce food.

“Increased use of timber – in balance – should be the direction of travel. Certainly, we should be targeting greater use of timber in housing construction than the 23% of new timber framed homes in England currently being built (although Scotland has a far higher ratio at 75%) according to recent research by MTW. Some volume housebuilders are moving with conviction towards more timber use but, like any change, there are risks and it is important that these are assessed, and that the integrity of the sector is not jeopardised through this process.

“The drive to reduce our carbon footprint is permeating at all levels. For example we are carrying out green audits to reduce carbon for a number of private clients to inform decision making over materials and details that we specify, and major changes include reduction in the use of beam and block floors to timber, and substituting steelwork in roofs and structures as far as possible, coupled with sourcing of materials including those used for insulation, energy use, and other factors.”

The Potsdam Institute study in Nature Communications is available here: