The Economist: benefits of using more wood in buildings

The authoritative weekly magazine "The Economist" has published in its latest issue two articles about the benefits of using more wood in buildings

  • The article includes as well a short interview to Harald Liven, Moelven’s project manager for Mjostarnet, and Rune Abrahamsen, chief executive of Moelven.

The main messages of the articles (from the point of view of the European sawmill industry) are provided below:

First Article: The House Made of Wood

  • This article is in the Leaders section of the magazine, which is about the most important topics dealt with in the latest issue
  • It states that the building industry is a very relevant source of emissions and that cement production accounts for 6% of the world’s carbon emissions while steel, half of which goes into buildings, accounts for 8%
  • Buildings can become greener. They can use more recycled steel and can be prefabricated in off-site factories, greatly reducing lorry journeys. But no other building material has environmental credentials as exciting and overlooked as wood.
  • Governments can help nudge the industry to use more wood, particularly in the public sector—the construction industry’s biggest client. That would help wood-building specialists achieve greater scale and lower costs. Zero-carbon building regulations should be altered to take account of the emissions that are embodied in materials. This would favour wood as well as innovative ways of producing other materials.
  • Construction codes could be tweaked to make building with wood easier. Here the direction of travel is wrong. Britain, for instance, is banning the use of timber on the outside of tall buildings after 72 people died in a tower fire in London in 2017. That is a nonsense. Grenfell Tower was covered in aluminium and plastic, not wood. Modern cross-laminated timber panels perform better in fire tests than steel ones do.

Second Article: Home Truths about Climate Change

  • This article is an in-depth analysis of the efforts (and often failures) of governments attempting to reduce the huge quantity of carbon emissions from constructing and using buildings
  • It mentions that the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper – Mjostarnet – , 85 metres high, will open in Norway in March 2019
  • All of its supporting columns are made of glulam—wooden beams laminated together. These are lighter than steel of comparable strength and require just one-sixth as much energy to produce.
  • “This is the future of construction,” beams Harald Liven, Moelven’s project manager for Mjostarnet. Many governments in the rich world want to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from constructing and using buildings. With some wonderful exceptions, they are failing.
  • From January 1st 2019 all new public-sector buildings in eu countries must be built to “Nearly Zero-Energy” standards. Other types of building will follow in January 2021. Parts of America and Asia are following. In Japan the government wants zero-energy buildings to become the standard from 2020. Last month the Canadian province of British Columbia passed a plan requiring that all new buildings from 2032 must be built to these standards. Governments in countries such as New Zealand are being lobbied to copy them.
  • If zero-carbon standards were changed to include the emissions from building and demolishing structures, many of the perverse incentives in the building regulations would disappear. It would probably lead to more building with wood. Many mature forests do little to take extra carbon out of the atmosphere. Chopping some of them down, storing the carbon in wooden buildings, and planting new trees in their place could well increase forestry’s contribution towards actually removing carbon from the air. (Sawmills can be green, too: the electricity that powers Moelven’s sawmills comes from burning sawdust.) And because wood is so light compared with steel, brick or concrete, it lends itself to the mass production of buildings in factories. That should cut emissions from moving materials to building sites.
  • In the light of the Grenfell Tower fire in London that killed 72 people, Benjamin Sporton of the Global Cement and Concrete Association, a trade body, questions whether there will be much demand for wooden skyscrapers. But wood does not melt in a fire. And once it has charred it does not continue burning, like a flamed-out log fire. Mjostarnet’s fire-exit staircase is clad in cross-laminated timber, a material widely regarded as safer than steel in a blaze.
  • A few other wooden skyscrapers are rising. Amsterdam and Vienna are already building wooden towers the height of Mjostarnet. More ambitious projects have been proposed, such as a 40-floor tower nicknamed “Treetop” in Stockholm and 300 metre-high towers in London and the Netherlands. Mjostarnet may be the world’s tallest wooden tower, “but we hope not to hold the record for long,” says Mr Liven.

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