Painting a Picture of the future for Timber

The BEIS Net Zero Review

With low-carbon construction now a global issue, policy makers around the world are looking to encourage more timber construction. TDUK looks at how the UK is shaping up, and what needs to be done to affect real change.

Timber bodies across the UK have been hard at work promoting the positive role that timber construction can play in the future of the built environment.

The built environment accounts for 25% of our national emissions and must be decarbonised if we are to reach net zero by 2050. Timber is being seen as a key material to reduce these emissions because it acts as a form of carbon capture and storage, requiring very little energy throughout the supply chain from harvesting through to manufacture and replacing more carbon-intensive materials such as bricks and steel.

Since COP26, when Timber Development UK (TDUK) launched the Time for Timber Manifesto, government advisory bodies such as the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and Environmental Audit Committee have been calling on the government to recognise these benefits.

A clear policy for change

Timber FrameNow, policy makers are working to implement a plan that will affect practical change.

The Timber in Construction (TiC) Working Group, a joint government initiative run by DBT, DESNZ, DEFRA, DLUHC and the Forestry Commission, is working with TDUK, Confor and the Structural Timber Association to create a clear, cohesive policy roadmap that will overcome the barriers currently in place for mass timber construction.

David Hopkins, CEO of TDUK, says: “TDUK has been at the heart of the TiC’s work, and has commissioned a Timber Policy book from architect Waugh Thistleton to show what is happening around the world, both at national and city level, as nations look to encourage more timber construction.

“This is something industry has long been calling for, but with 2050 approaching now is the time for action. The upcoming TiC Roadmap will, we hope, be a significant step towards the government making good on its pledge to increase the safe use of timber in construction.

“If implemented properly, the roadmap offers the government a huge opportunity to expand low-carbon construction across the UK, and particularly in the housing sector.”

The CCC estimates that if timber frame was used to build 270,000 new houses, the amount of carbon sequestered in UK homes per year could increase to 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e), while reducing embodied emissions by 20% per building.

Expanding timber construction also offers a range of economic benefits and could help regions ‘level up’ with green jobs and create localised manufacturing bases across the country.

Identifying barriers to timber

The TiC working group has identified the key challenges facing the timber industry if we are to achieve mass timber construction as:

  • Demand – how do we make timber the material of choice for builders?
  • Supply – how do we ensure supply is adequate to meet future demand?
  • Insurance – how do we address insurance fears with timber?
  • Building safety – how can we expand timber construction safely?
  • Carbon – how do we reduce carbon in the built environment?
  • Labour and skills – how do we ensure the labour supply is adequate for future demand?

The TiC Roadmap, once published, will outline how the government plans to promote the safe expansion of timber construction. It will also provide an overview of timber as a construction material, priority themes and policy implementation plans. This will then be monitored and evaluated until the next general election.

The barriers to timber construction identified by the working group are very similar to those outlined in Timber Construction: barriers and solutions, a report created for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Timber Industries. That report also identified demand, supply, labour and skills as key issues that must be addressed if the UK is to meet its net zero commitments.

APPG Co-chairs Baroness Hayman of Ullock and Tonia Antoniazzi MP, say: “Climate change is increasingly central to global policy discussions for good reason. If we are to ensure a sustainable future for all we must take action now.

“Buildings often get ignored in climate debates [but] the built environment directly accounts for 25% of emissions in the UK, stemming from the day-to-day use of buildings (operational carbon) as well as their manufacture and construction (embodied carbon).

“If we are to tackle these emissions, a foundational shift in the way we build and operate our buildings is required. This means prioritising low-carbon materials in construction and moving away from energy intensive, non-regenerative resources. It also requires avoiding demolition in favour of the retrofit and improvement of our existing buildings.”

Kirsten Haggart, Associate Director at Waugh Thistleton, says: “There has been some progress in breaking down the barriers but there is still work to be done, primarily with regulation and insurance.

“Education of architects, engineers, Building Control, Insurers and contractors in understanding how to design and build with timber safely and for durability will be key in expanding its use in construction, as will incentives for developers to move towards biobased construction.”

What are the next steps?

TDUK has gone a step further and is looking to identify mechanisms that can be used to promote low-carbon timber construction, as well as investigating what other countries are doing to stimulate the use of timber in construction. The Timber Policy book from Waugh Thistleton, commissioned by TDUK, makes a number of recommendations.

David says: “While not exhaustive, we hope Timber Policy will help to encourage further reading, discussions and greater policy change at government level – something everyone agrees is badly needed.

“In June 2023 Lord Deben, the outgoing chair of the CCC, said the UK had ‘lost the leadership’ on climate action shown at COP26 in 2021, which should be of great concern to everyone involved in the built environment. Our 2030 carbon emission reduction targets are now just seven years away. We want to see policy makers take urgent steps to show that leadership once again and put plans in place to move the entire industry towards low-carbon construction with timber.”


Recommendations for change

The recommendations made in Timber Policy include:

  • Establish a UK national methodology for whole life-carbon assessment to avoid inconsistency and create a level playing field in the way the sector calculates carbon.
  • Establish a clear timeframe for when whole-life carbon assessments will become mandatory, aligned with the introduction of the Future Homes Standard.
  • Building Regulations should mandate whole-life carbon assessments for buildings above a gross internal area of 1.000m2, or more than 10 dwellings. These measures have proven successful in Denmark and The Netherlands.
  • Commission a centralised national database of EPDs and provide advice and financial support to smaller manufacturers.
  • Introduce a low-carbon standard for all public works projects. Amend the Procurement Bill to require whole-life carbon assessments as a condition of participation in any tender for publicly financed building projects.
  • DfE should develop a retrofit and upskilling strategy for schools.
  • Introduce a CO2 tax in alignment with the EU Emissions Trading System that increases over time, making CO2-intensive building materials like cement more expensive.

Paul Brannen, Director of Public Affairs for the European Confederation of Woodworking Industries (CEI-Bois), adds: “It should be compulsory to publicly declare at the planning stage the amount of embodied carbon contained within a proposed new building and a prediction as to its operational carbon emissions.

“Such a proposal would be in keeping with the 2022 report written by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee ‘Building to net zero: costing carbon in construction’ where their key conclusion was ‘…the single most significant policy the government could introduce is a mandatory requirement to undertake whole-life carbon assessments of buildings’.

“At a stroke this would ‘let the sunlight in’ and reveal that timber buildings have much lower carbon footprints than concrete, steel, brick and block. Secondly, limits on the maximum size of these carbon footprints must be introduced.”

The TiC Roadmap is due to be launched before the end of 2023.