Building Green: What goes into a planet-friendly home?
Updated: Apr 7, 2021
The first thought that comes to mind may be unplugging our appliances and turning off the lights, but what about the very structure and foundations of our homes?
We talked with Andy Gibson, Timber Frames Operations Manager of eco-friendly materials company Merronbrook Ltd. in the UK about planet-friendly building materials, why he’s such a big advocate for timber construction, and common misconceptions!
Why would you recommend timber as the most sustainable building material?
Andy Gibson: The Engineered Wood Products industry is built on a very focused idea that — using clever techniques and technologies — we can actually get timber to work harder using less material, and in some cases use timber fibre that would otherwise be of no structural use at all.
Most importantly is the process of ‘sequestration.’ Sequestration means that for any given tree that grows, it would one day die, and fall to the forest floor where it would be naturally decomposed and most of it released into the atmosphere as carbon-based gases — mostly as Greenhouse Gases. Building with timber from sustainable sources (that increase the rate at which trees are taking carbon from that atmosphere) avoids decomposition and locks this carbon away for generations. Increasing timber use in construction and furniture manufacture, especially if this replaces plastic, steel, or concrete, is overwhelmingly better for the environment.
What are the common misconceptions about timber as an eco-friendly building material?
First, the public perception of timber is that it requires you to cut down trees, and therefore there is an association with deforestation, but in the UK and other developed countries, there is a wide agreement to source timber responsibly, so all businesses that use timber in their production would wish to show that they only source timber from reliable sources.
The deforestation of tropical rainforests is driven by the consumption of tropical hardwoods. Whilst this is clearly an issue that must be tackled, this deforestation and lack of forest management (which is globally recognised as illegal) are not being driven by construction consumption in the developed world. This is because structural timber in Europe and North America tends to come from softwoods — coniferous ‘evergreen’ trees that grow slow & steady all year round, like pine, spruce, and redwoods from the cold boreal forests of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and Canada.
There are also certification schemes that allow purchasers to buy with confidence that the timber is coming from sustainable sources: in the UK and Europe there are:
The Forestry Stewardship Council scheme (FSC)
The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)
Both organisations use a ‘chain of custody system’ which ensures that your timber can be traced all the way back to its source and that this source is using audited methods of maintaining sustainable forests. Managed forests also tend to re-plant new trees at a much faster rate than they’re removed — normally around a 3-1 ratio.
What do you think people should know as they pick out materials for building their homes or when they look at renting an apartment?
That home-buying and home-improvement material-choice behaviors have as much impact globally as the meat and dairy industry does, if not slightly more. A person choosing to buy or build a timber frame home could be having as big an impact on their carbon footprint as choosing to go vegan – I’m convinced that almost no-one knows this.
The production of concrete, bricks, and steel account for around 17% of all global CO2 emissions, and these processes do not store any carbon captured from the atmosphere.
The carbon cost of the way the material is made and how it gets to their home
Whether the material sequesters atmospheric carbon
Whether or not it will deliver fabric-efficiency improvements, to lower their energy consumption
Making your home easy to insulate should be a key factor when choosing a build method for your new home, but often isn’t. Buyers tend to focus on the absolute thermal efficiency of the home, without paying much attention to how it was achieved and what materials were used in doing it.
Another thing to look out for is the vocabulary! The market for ‘MMC’ – Modern Methods of Construction – can be a jargon-heavy and confusing place for the home-buyer to look at. The phrase ‘MMC’ in-and-of-itself is a bit of a meaningless catch-all, that tries to encompass a wide variety of non-traditional and – to some extent – prefabricated building elements.
We recommend timber frame as we employ it has been in use for decades, so it’s hardly modern, and as it’s been widely used in the U.S., it’s not very ‘pre-fabricated’ either, but its environmental credentials in both cases are outstanding.
What would you recommend for people to take action when it comes to reducing emissions through their housing materials?
Avoid concrete, bricks, and heavy gauge steel wherever possible
Use timber for structural beams if possible and appropriate
Use well-insulated timber frames or ‘SIPS’ panels to create the external envelope
Ask questions about the impacts of the materials in your home, and use this information to make your choices
How is Merronbrook working to be more sustainable?
We’re at the beginning of our journey in this regard! We started by working on waste-reduction a few years ago...
We began with managing our waste into ‘streams’ for increased recycling as well as investing in an automated processing saw that reduces timber waste and biomass boilers to recover energy from the waste timber that we do generate. This is unfortunately not universally true amongst all businesses in the EWP industry, but the production of these products is remarkably more sustainable and energy-efficient than the traditional alternatives like steel, concrete, and fired clay bricks.
We’re now in the next phase of work, where we’ll be investing in carbon offsetting, renewable energy sources, encouraging and supporting the use of electric vehicles and hybrids by our staff, and taking steps to reduce air, noise, and light pollution.
… Thanks so much to Andy for the interview! We’ve learned a lot about the potential of timber as a building material to help fight climate change. Building materials and construction accounted for roughly 40% of global emissions in 2018. While timber has the potential to have a lot of benefits, proper management is key. A 2018 study by Oregon State University found that the timber industry was the state’s biggest carbon polluter due to the use of privately owned forests and poor logging practices - so there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Do you have any tips for planet-friendly building materials? What planet-friendly practices do you look for when you’re moving to a new home? We’d love to know! Join the conversation via the Capture Instagram channel or say hi to the team at firstname.lastname@example.org