Exploring efficient design: The limitations and potential of timber as a sustainable material

Ron Bakker of PLP Architecture shares their findings to encourage net carbon-negative developments

Empty interior of a modern office building with wooden accents. DigitalStorm/Shutterstock

The urban cities that you know now wouldn’t be the same without the colossal skyscrapers, compelling architectures and impressive landmarks. These structures symbolize the success of a neighbourhood, where everything that you need — from your workplace to entertainment venues to life-sustaining establishments such as hospitals and grocery stores — are all within a short distance from your own home.  

With the predicted influx of people moving to cities in the coming years, the real estate industry will have to build more to accommodate the needs of the growing population. But in order to meet such needs, the environment would have to suffer.  

Apart from the noise and dust pollution, widely-used materials during construction like steel and concrete generate 10 percent of the global annual greenhouse gases when they are being manufactured. Since there are only a few known solutions to produce these without releasing carbon dioxide, expert panellists at the Exploring Efficient Design webinar discussed alternative green-friendly materials that can be used. 

Among the luminaries were Ron Bakker, the founding partner of London-based PLP Architecture, who shared that his firm has been working with the University of Cambridge, along with materials engineers, structural engineers and chemists to pursue the use of wood as a sustainable material to develop high-rise buildings. 

The challenges faced 

Ron said that they have conducted several study projects with real clients to determine whether the idea is conceivable and financially practical. He admitted the difficulties that they have faced since this material has commonly only been used to build two to three-floor sheds. Their concept to develop a high-rise building out of wood had to go through a number of issues like the structural technologies of fixings, bioengineering, acoustics and material science. 

Moreover, they had to consider the integrity and durability of wood. He explained that since most of the engineered wood used by the construction industry is softwood. It grows quickly, it is inexpensive and it can easily be reassembled into elements that the industry already comprehends structurally. 

The problem is, softwood needs to be kept inside as it doesn’t do well in rain, gets damaged by ultraviolet rays and bugs love to eat it. The solution is to protect the timber behind glass or inside a building so there wouldn’t be any limit to its life. He also argued that the structure that holds the climbing of the dome in St. Paul’s Cathedral is made of local oakwood, is several hundred years old and hasn’t had any issues similar to other materials used in the project. 

The future is timber 

Throughout the course of four years, they eventually found that “Yes, you can build buildings of about 300 metres out of wood and that will be incredibly sustainable. It would make it very easy for projects to be net carbon negative rather than adding to the problem,” revealed Ron.  

“And if you look at timber as something that grows in a farm, then it’s a material that works beautifully,” he added. 

Aside from the environmental benefit, wood has been aesthetically associated with a feeling of warmth. Ron even said that there are plenty of studies depicting its health benefits to various users, such as better concentration for kids at school and positive social interactions at home. 

An award-wining hybrid structure 

In the center of Rotterdam, The Netherlands, PLP Architecture successfully developed an award-wining mixed-use project right next to a train station. The said development comes with residences, offices, an event space for jazz music and Ted talks, several restaurants and bars and some retail shops at the base. 

According to Ron, they had to figure out which material works best for the project and its location. Since it is near a station, they decided to use concrete as it will be able to absorb the noise and vibration from the railway. As for the apartments, they wanted to incorporate timber as its structure is ideal for the small spaces and areas where the users are more in touch with the material. To ensure the security and safety of future users, they spoke with the fire department and made sure that the building itself is compliant to all the regulations. 

Back in the day, the real estate industry was held back by limited and costly options to go green. But now that we have innovative leaders who came up with solutions that don’t put the environment at risk, then we, as an industry, can help fight climate change. 

This is the third of a three-part series based on the Exploring Efficient Design webinar organised by PropertyGuru Asia Real Estate Summit. Around 300 viewers from over 20 countries across the world joined the one-hour web conference held last 25th of June. For further enquiries, email [email protected]. Visit the official website AsiaRealEstateSummit.com and follow our social media for upcoming live webinar announcements.