Story | 05/05/2020 07:06:46

Sustainable wood construction can help reduce emissions

When produced responsibly, timber is a great material for sustainable architecture. Many recent wooden buildings are breaking ground for future innovation.

The buildings in which we live and work have both a practical and aesthetic function. Not only do they provide us with shelter but, ideally, they should also look and feel good, as well as representing the values of both their designers and occupants. Since housing is an inescapable necessity, buildings play a significant role in our lives and in shaping our future approaches to sustainable living. 

“Buildings are metaphors, helping us to communicate. People used to say ‘My home is my castle’, but these days we use new metaphors to describe them, like ‘nest,’ ‘control tower’ and ‘smart building’,” says Professor Sirkka Heinonen from the University of Turku’s Finland Futures Research Centre. Heinonen is currently studying climate-neutral and smart cities in a project forming part of the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme on research and innovation. 

New metaphors are indeed relevant, because the construction industry is facing immense pressure to change. Urbanisation and population growth are generating demand for new housing and workspace, but climate change requires urgent action to reduce emissions. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the construction industry accounts for nearly 40% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. 

Increasing the use of sustainably farmed wood is an effective solution to the challenge of emission reduction. Trees absorb CO2 as they grow, meaning that wooden buildings provide long-term carbon storage. 

“I think timber construction is a great example of long-term planning for sustainable economic growth, as it acknowledges the necessity to reduce emissions,” says Heinonen.

Looking ahead to 2050 

Futurology examines societal change on several levels. In addition to megatrends such as climate change, urbanisation, population growth and ageing, it also looks at corollary trends such as the increasing variety and adaptability of living, digitalisation, smart buildings, new communities and the ethos of sharing. 

The greatest challenge, states Heinonen, is predicting changes in people’s lifestyles and their effects on construction. 

“Our residential practices aren’t changing significantly, but lifestyles are. People are taking more interest in the materials and energy used in housing. Timber construction is likely to gain enormous momentum in the future among people who are striving to reduce their ecological footprint,” Heinonen predicts. 

Heinonen encourages everyone— including companies—to examine their actions and their consequences within a longer time frames of 20 to 30 years. 

“You should look as far ahead as 2050 and consider how well current construction practices and the industry’s use of materials and energy are meeting global challenges. I believe the true winners in business are the companies that already prioritise sustainability and produce goods and services in line with this principle,” she says. 

The future is not etched in stone. Everyone can make a difference with their choices and actions. In addition to looking at plausible and likely future scenarios, everybody should also consider how they would like to see the future unfold.

“Although timber construction has clear benefits, we need to highlight good examples of successful construction for it to gain popularity. This means looking beyond the familiar log cabin and spotlighting versatile buildings that exemplify innovative concepts and forward-thinking aesthetics. It is experimentation that drives development.” 

 

Text: Janne Suokas