The versatility of timber

Scott McAndrew of ITW discusses why timber is not only sustainable, but can also offer desirable flexibility as well as crucial fire safety

Alot of information has been circulating about timber being a sustainable material, with fantastic initiatives such as Wood for Good and Time for Timber aiming to tackle high emissions in the construction industry.

When sustainably sourced, timber is without question one of the most environmentally friendly materials currently available, being a natural carbon sink and truly renewable. This has made timber a popular material in green construction.

Sourcing wood from sustainably managed forests helps encourage biodiversity, it increases forestation, and it maximises CO² absorption. It’s now generally known that timber is sustainable and a great way of lowering the carbon footprint in construction. But, being a versatile material, timber offers far more besides sustainability.

With the technical advancement of timber, designers and engineers now have the ability to consider the use of wood as an alternative to concrete and steel.

This opens up many opportunities and allows for greater design freedom. Timber is naturally beautiful and is a popular material that is widely agreed to offer warmth and a comforting aesthetic. As a natural material, it also has the benefit of helping a structure to blend in with its landscape, especially in rural areas.

That’s not the only benefit of using wood in construction, however, as the use of timber also offers more versatility in a way concrete and steel cannot.

Across the world timber is becoming a great contender to concrete and steel. Designers and engineers are realising the strength, stability and design flexibility of timber products and how they are used to create high quality buildings. Timber has become popularised in Scandinavia, Australia and America, and structural timber buildings are pushing boundaries in design, attaining heights and spans that would have previously required concrete, steel or masonry to achieve.

Using timber as a new method of construction is not only a modern way to build but it’s also an effective way to build. The advantage with the use of wood compared to concrete and steel is that it has the benefit of being able to be manufactured offsite – in a factory controlled environment – and being easily assembled onsite. This has the advantage of speed, strict quality control methods, ensuring the correct specification of materials are used and a high degree of dimensional accuracy that you wouldn’t get with traditional building methods.

Timber also allows for futureproofing. A timber construction’s total lifespan can be extended to suit the flexible way we will be living in the future.

Fire Safety
A hot topic around the use of timber in construction is fire safety. If managed in the right way, however, timber can be considered no more of a risk than any other building material.

As with any building material, safety is a priority, and all building materials are vulnerable to damage in the event of a fire and react in different ways.

With timber however, we have the added knowledge to be able to predict its performance in the event of a fire as it has a slow charring rate. The function and properties of wood being flammable remains unchanged within the pyrolysis zone, and as such engineers are able to use this knowledge to their advantage when designing for fire safety.

In response to concerns about fire safety in structural timber buildings, we’ve also seen the Structural Timber Association step in and do their own analysis, investing close to £750k in fire research, which had led to the confirmation of timber being a safe building system when built correctly.

Modern international research into the development and risk of fire has helped change the approach to fire safety in buildings. Reported from Swedish Wood, we’ve seen cross laminated timber (CLT) being heavily used in Swedish construction. CLT is a smart environmental choice as it’s made from renewable raw material and manufactured in a lowenergy process. Products also have a high resistance to fire, improving safety in timber buildings.

Timber is currently undergoing a resurgence in use within construction, it has been shown to be a renewable building material with great benefits in terms of effectiveness, flexibility and design.

Timber is also an environmentally smart choice that lends itself to safe building designs, expanding methods of modern construction.

Because of this, timber use within construction will undoubtedly continue to grow as more companies become aware of its great benefits.

Scott McAndrew is engineer and research and development manager at ITW