ADAM Director Robbie Kerr comments on the policy to increase the use of timber in construction

December 15, 2023

Should policies to increase the use of timber in construction be announced we would certainly approve but there is a balance to be struck, says Robbie Kerr, Director, ADAM Architecture

It has been reported this week that Steve Barclay, Environment Secretary, is expected to propose capping the amount of embodied carbon in building materials and the launch of a ‘timber in construction roadmap’.  It’s also reported that just 10 percent of new homes in England are timber framed according to data from the National House Building Council with Scotland, Wales and N Ireland all performing much better.

This follows publication of a study in Nature Communications last year from the Potsdam Institute on Timber Cities focusing on the increased use of wood for urban development. Robbie Kerr, Director of ADAM Architecture, the leading practice specialising in progressive classical and traditional architecture and contextual urban design said:

“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.

“For a start we need to look north and learn from Scotland where around 90 percent of new homes being built are now timber framed. If it can be done north of the border there is no excuse for performance elsewhere not to match that.

“That said, 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.

“Whilst wood materials have the benefit of being a carbon store the negatives associated with wooden cities and timber neighbourhoods need careful consideration too – we will need to increase our forest resource, both hardwoods and softwoods, 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. The Potsdam Institute paper also said that it is important that tree planting does not impact negatively on our global resource to grow and produce food.

“The drive to reduce our carbon footprint is permeating at all levels and as a practice 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.”