Timber buildings the key to lower emissions, says report

A sustainable forest in Austria

In order to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 the entire construction process must be redesigned. The use of timber, one of the world’s oldest building materials, offers many benefits, from fewer carbon emissions to speed of construction to greater occupier demand for greener assets, according to a new report just published by Cromwell Property Group.

Each year, more than 6 billion sq m of buildings are constructed using carbon intensive materials such as glass, iron, steel and concrete, states the report, Timber Buildings: Truly Sustainable Real Estate.

One to way balance the need to build against the need to control emissions is through more sustainable construction methods and this has led to a return to timber. The potential of this versatile material is immense and can be used across all sectors. Timber buildings use less energy and emit less carbon over their lifecycle than materials used for concrete-framed construction.

Mass timber, an engineered timber product, is versatile and supports innovative flexible design and architectural approaches. It is this flexibility, combined with its increasing popularity to both occupiers and investors that has made cross-laminated timber (CLT) and other types of engineered timber a viable alternative to concrete and steel.

The European engineered timber construction market has been growing by roughly 8% (€5 billion) a year. It is expected to expand to €10 billion a year by 2030. These figures concern multi-storey buildings only. If timber frame buildings and detached houses are also included, the size of the investible market increases significantly.

A like-for-like cost comparison would indicate timber is currently more expensive than concrete or steel. This reflects supply and demand dynamics. However, as timber construction becomes more mainstream and less specialised, costs will become more competitive as timber construction expands its market presence.

Despite its higher cost, the speed of timber construction can shift the financial balance. Mass timber buildings are roughly 25% faster to construct than their concrete equivalents This increased speed stems mostly from timber’s lightweight nature which allows for larger and fewer lifts, as well as the ability for building sections to be prefabricated building offsite.

Ensuring timber production is sourced from sustainably managed forests is critical. Europe’s foresty stock has actually increased by 10% since 1990 because more trees are being planted than felled as a result of management. The three largest European forests used for mass timber are located in Finland, Sweden and Austria. These countries combined make up around one-third of Europe’s forestry stock and have an average growth speed across of 2.75m³ of timber per second. The timber used in a typical 5,000 m2 office building would be regrown within nine minutes in an Austrian forest.

“In a market where investors are seeking to future-proof their assets, we believe interest in mass timber construction will grow significantly,” said Tom Duncan, head of research and investment strategy, Cromwell Property Group. “Ultimately the success of timber buildings will be self-generating: the more timber is used, the more success stories there will be, the more the multi-faceted benefits will be evident to all. Similar to electric cars, innovation in timber construction will create so much momentum to the point where it will not seem radical at all. We will simply be left asking – why did it take so long?”