Following our recent timber rountable, facilitated by New London Architecture, NLQ editor David Taylor has summarised the discussions in a write up on New London Weekly.
Read the full piece below:
The UK should install a ‘timber first’ policy, gather data and bring its use into building regulations, provide clarity and consistency in the form of a ‘go-to’ guide and become part of the ‘macro’ solution to countering climate change. But issues like Grenfell cast a long shadow over the industry and misconceptions over fire safety in timber structures – even if one it may only take one insurer to embrace the material for the UK picture to unlock.
Those were some of the main points to emerge towards the end of a wide-ranging discussion between key industry leaders and practitioners on building in timber, held last week at the offices of engineer Heyne Tillett Steel.
The group – many of whom, such as host Andy Heyne described themselves as either being ‘addicted’ to using timber, or at least fully appreciative of the warm, human nature it lends to construction, discussed other attributes too, such as its ability to contribute to sustainability goals, its ‘calmness’ leading to better wellness, less waste and more efficiency on site. Furthermore, said Heyne, HTS practices what it preaches, its new Chart Street offices, home to the discussion, being a ‘pocket-rocket sized version of a commercial timber building’.
‘We not only have to build more timber to slow climate change, but we should want to build more in timber from a human perspective as well’, he said. Heyne felt that the ‘tide’ of timber is coming in, perhaps going out in terms of the use of steel and concrete.
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton said more timber use had benefits beyond sustainability to do with the construction process and a more accurate assessment of carbon that creates a ‘non-hostile’ working environment, as well as spaces which are beautiful, natural and part of resource-conscious design.
But while Tom Jarman of Urban Splash said some its customers didn’t know they lived in a timber-framed house even when they did, promoting the sustainability story was thus important and something the company is still ‘working out’. Another key issue, however, is that brick and block looks likely to remain the go-to choice of most house-builders as long as it’s economically advantageous. It’s still cheaper than volumetric modular construction in our experience, although the dial is moving as regulation continues to creates the need for improved environmental performance.
Oliver Hartley-Booth of G&T said that perhaps there should be a tax incentive to help here, since companies that opt for the timber route are not getting the financial benefits they maybe deserve. The benefits they do get, though, include speed of construction, said HTS’ Ella Warren. But timber has to be used in the right place, and not simply as a comparator to other materials in the early stages of projects, she said.
For Argent Related, the primary driver is embodied carbon, said the developer’s Peter Runacres, but another is in terms of ‘genuine, objective’ health and wellbeing, as well as economic sustainability. And, importantly, tenants were showing ‘phenomenal’ interest, largely due to the way organisations can attract staff into the workplace, even if current barriers to timber use include economic viability and, unlike in other parts of Europe, available data and ‘getting our act together across all the regulatory processes’.
Is there proof of timber’s effects? Independent MMC/Engineered Timber specialist Craig Liddell – who is involved in the commercialisation of homegrown UK CLT - pointed to a neo-natal intensive care unit in Bath designed 10 years ago as ‘tangible’ evidence from staff over the less stressful environment that had resulted from the use of timber construction.
Other benefits include fewer construction vehicles going to site because of less waste, and, said OFR Fire & Risk Consultants director Sam Liptrott, the way it encourages a ‘laser focus’ being kept by the construction team on all design stages.
However, Liptrott added, we are all living in the shadow of one of the biggest losses in life in a single fire in this country - Grenfell.
‘It’s cast a very long shadow, and the problem we have is that we have a political environment looking at timber through the lens of Grenfell’. The difference between what people perceive and know is ‘huge’ he added, and people can get across their opinions on Twitter or elsewhere with the media distorting the picture additionally.
Insurer Dominic Lion of Gallaghers said that there were an enormous number of positives from timber that are ‘not very well articulated’ from an insurance point of view, such as far less risk of injury, whilst quality is also at a high level, and perhaps greater than other areas of UK industry. ‘We’re just not selling it very well or articulating it very well because actually we have a very good story to tell insurers’, he said.
Perhaps, though, Liptrott went on, insurers don’t have to think about timber as it does not represent a commercial threat to them, so as long as they all stay in a ‘cabal’. ‘The first to break cover; everybody will be rushing to insure timber’, he said. Insurers in the US are behaving more pragmatically, said Nick Milestone, director Sigmat and chairman of TRADA, and is familiar with a natural resource grown on home soil. But the UK imports from Europe, and needs to ‘de-risk’ it to get mass timber back into the equation. ‘It has to be seeded organically. That’s the way it happens’.
A change in Building Regulations caused a change in perception on timber for the worse that MHCLG admitted was ‘collateral damage’, said Waugh. ‘It’s insane’. That change will be reversed in 2022. But more widely, timber does not have the lobbying power behind other materials driving alterations to regulations in their favour. Much of this is perception because of mixed messages about combustibility, added Milestone, particularly causing a halt to the use of CLT in residential schemes following Grenfell. Nick Clark of KLH UK and STA agreed, suggesting we need to get away from the word combustibility and turning ‘the narrative’ towards ‘fire performance’ and ‘reaction to fire’.
On the issue of fire and timber, The London Fire Brigade is anti-uncertainty and anti-lack of data, said Liptrott, and remained aligned with the insurance industry. ‘What the brigade is saying is that we can prove that timber satisfies the building regulations. What we can’t prove is that it will continue to satisfy the building regulations in 5, 10, 15 years’ time. And it is that long-term durability that is very difficult to demonstrate’.
So, if there was a magic wand, how would the think tank members wave it? What would they wish for?
Answers included fire testing at large and small scale and more research generally that could be brought to government so they can ‘jump on the bandwagon’ for timber use. ‘The only way we're going to get the government to do something’, said Liptrott‘, is if we go to them with a half-solved problem. If we leave it for them to solve it will remain unsolved forever.’ Others included support and incentives for using such a sustainable material, systematized solutions that people could go to via a simple ‘go to’ guide, added Tom Jarman. And others still suggested sharing data more across consultants, and building regulations that encourage timber - even if it may take an estimated 15 years to get that change. But perhaps the biggest magic wand item is placing timber use within the wider, crucial climate change issue
‘Let’s focus on the macro, not the micro’ said Nick Clark. ‘Surely, everyone involved in what we are doing should see the infinite gains to doing everything possible to sustain the planet, so that the events that we are creating elsewhere because of climate change slow down. And therefore to facilitate that, you need to build in timber. Let’s look at it as a solution to a much bigger problem. With insurance companies being reluctant to issue timber buildings right now they need them to think about the cost to the insurance industry of a climate event, compared to their financial risk with a building, I know where I’d put my money. We need to be thinking in that holistic, macro sense. The timber industry in the UK is a very small part of a much much bigger picture, but nevertheless a very important part. And therefore, let’s think about the big picture, and this is being a part of a solution to that picture’.