Climate Emergency



In May 2019, the UK government declared a climate emergency – a year later has our behaviour in relation to construction changed?

In February 2020 the Architects’ Journal reported a strange twist to a housing project in East Ham (London). Newham Council had commissioned RIBA Stirling Prize-winning architects dRMM to design an eleven-storey mixed-use scheme – which they did, developing a design which adopted cross-laminated timber (CLT) as its main structure. But (and now for the twist) recently, Red Door Ventures (Newham Council’s housing company) has hired another architectural company (Studio Partington) to redesign the scheme replacing the CLT with concrete!

This shift appears to clearly relate our newly formed relationship to the design of high-rise structures following the Grenfell disaster. Responding to Grenfell, the Government brought out a ban on the use of combustible materials for external walls of buildings beyond 18m in height. This ban at times has been wrongfully translated to describe any combustible materials (including glulam and CLT) anywhere on any building.

So, back to the original point and our ever more urgent ‘climate emergency’. As concrete is key ingredient is cement and cement is believed to account for eight per cent of global carbon emissions worldwide, why would you still be using it if there are other more sustainable options available to you? Solutions with warmer, more beautiful aesthetics (let the debate begin) and ones which can be designed to afford the same structural integrity!

Perhaps because concrete and steel are at hand, we know them, their properties and the methods used to manufacture and install them – it’s easy. And, we are all busy, we ‘don’t want to reinvent the wheel’ do we? – nothing else. But concrete and steel still have inherent problems in relation to both carbon and sustainability. So, what is a viable solution for the construction process – has anything happened before we had forgotten about?

In the 1980s a number of UK housebuilders embarked upon an experimental approach in relation to house building – using pre-fabricated timber frames. At the time it was seen as definitively non-standard and potential buyers struggled at times to secure mortgages from a number of high street banks and building societies. Today timber frame (as part of off-site) construction is commonplace, even heralded as a benchmark in good construction practice, but why has it taken almost forty years for these ‘new’ approaches to construction to develop and actually be adopted? The culture of timber architecture in Scandinavian countries has been growing for generations but has taken an unfathomable amount of time to migrate across throughout wider Europe and the UK – why?

By definition, an emergency is a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action – so there is an urgency to this – but, where is the dialogue taking place? Who do we need to speak to, so we can help address these larger issues relating to construction, be part of the solution, and at least say we did one thing to help make a positive more sustainable contribution?

#do1thing #ClimateEmergency #WoodforGood #Glulam #BucklandTimber