The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products has secured funding from the Laudes Foundation to establish a ‘Timber Accelerator Hub’, with the aim of enabling more mass timber construction.
Context – The problem
We are in a climate crisis, with ten years to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In the past few years alone we have seen a number of natural disasters, including Hurricane Laura in the Caribbean and US coastline, and devastating wildfires in California and Australia. The Committee on Climate Change report that favouring timber over high carbon materials such as concrete and steel, is one of the most effective ways to reduce emissions, calculating that if 270,000 homes were built out of timber, this would absorb and store 3,000,000 tonnes of carbon per year. However, there is currently a kickback against timber buildings, with a range of barriers, including a perception of increased risk due to fire and moisture ingress. These barriers are being explored in a forum setting and shadowed by a Mass Timber Know How Group (MTKH). This group is developing the issues raised by the forum into actions, to enable solutions. To translate these actions into solutions requires funding support.
About the project
The manufacture and transport of construction products currently represents 23% of human-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Abergel et al. 2017), with over half of those as a result of cement and steel production, making its contribution to the climate crisis significant. Timber structures have many advantages; lighter, faster build times, cost parity, less traffic movements, lower embodied energy, less waste, less noise/dust during the build and significant carbon sequestration; carbon capture and storage for free. In summary, timber buildings are high performance, sustainable and comfortable.
Mass timber was first introduced into the UK 15 years ago and over 1,000 buildings have been completed and occupied. The construction industry recognises that the market for timber structural system builds is being choked off, mainly as a result of the 2018 ban on combustible materials in residential buildings over 18m and the subsequent consultation that closed in May 2020 to bring this down to 11m. These actions have caused shockwaves to run through the insurance industry, with an increased perceived risk with mass timber builds, resulting in dramatic increases in premiums, or cover being withdrawn altogether. The Government apparently recognises the impact such a ban would have and is uncomfortable with the concept of ruling against natural materials, whilst in the throes of a climate crisis. It is noted that MCHLG is currently advertising for a new DG for Building Safety, Grenfell Response and Net Zero and the Timber Accelerator Hub (TAH) project would allow for targeted advocacy of this person, from day one of them being in post. The results of these events have led to clients and designers reverting to much higher embodied carbon materials, such as concrete and steel.
In an effort to collaborate and reverse this trend, a mass timber know-how group (MTKH) has been convened, consisting of leading clients, a lender, a broker, the head of London Fire Brigade, the Head of Building Control London, an insurer and representatives across the rest of the supply chain, with sixteen folk in total. It is proposed that the TAH will take over the management of this group, convene its meetings, prepare minutes and prepare outputs for feedback and comment by the group This group shadows a wider forum, which is hosted by cost consultants Gardiner & Theobald, who have brought together some 90 clients and other UK stakeholders, mainly from the demand side, which meets monthly, to overcome the barriers to more timber construction and help them to achieve their net zero targets, by building in timber. This forum launched in July 2020 and has met three times, to examine the major barriers highlighted by the audience in the first forum. These were namely insurance (34%) and fire (29%) and the forum has a programme over the next 6 months for monthly meetings to explore the other specific barriers (sustainability, best practice during construction, cost programme and procurement, capacity and supply chain, acoustics and sales/leasing/letting) and to recommend to the MTKH group and wider industry how these barriers can be best overcome. The most significant barrier identified by the G&T forum was insurance and in the second forum in August 2020, a group of leading insurers were quizzed on the perceived increased risk with mass timber structures and what the industry needs to do to overcome these risks. It was felt that work was needed in three main areas;
- Quantify: to highlight the size of the opportunity and the huge growth potential of timber construction. The World Economic Forum, in their most recent report on The Future of Nature and Business estimated the value of the timber building economy would reach £45bn per year by 2030.
- Educate: the insurance industry relies on data, but it is not good at sharing information across companies and there is very little UK data on mass timber fires and so they defer to experience from fires in light timber structures, which behave very differently.
- Differentiate: a requirement to differentiate good and bad practice and highlight best practice for both design and construction.
It is proposed that the TAH project should be in two phases, which will enable the timber industry to respond in a collective and collaborative way. Phase 1 will systematically research the different insurance related barriers across the supply chain, to identify the issues and range of problems and define route maps to overcome them. Once all the barriers are explored, defined and better understood, we will then scope these actions into deliverables for Phase 2. There will inevitably need to be some back and forth with insurance representatives, to understand and refine what exactly is needed and the format for each solution.
In phase 1, we will also learn from the global picture. California has implemented a series of code changes that will allow tall #masstimber buildings up to 18 storeys, following a unanimous vote by the CBSC in 2020. The tallest timber building in the world has just been completed in Norway. Called Mjøstårnet (Mjøsa Tower) after nearby Lake Mjøsa, the building is 85.4 metres high over 18 storeys – about eight metres shorter than the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Insurance and fire – industry response
The mass timber industry has responded to the kickback against timber buildings by collectively embarking on a €0.5 million, 18 month programme, which has been underway for 6 months now. It commenced with a literature review, and then defined a testing regime. It will now start a mass fire-testing programme, which in turn will lead to the development of a compliance guide, with oversight from a special interest stakeholders group, chaired by STA, with academics from Edinburgh University and UCL. One action for the project manager of the TAH will be to join this group and help steer the process towards transferring the findings to the industry and creating resources which are useful and meaningful for the insurance industry and to increase the wider communication around activities and outcomes. In addition, the TAH needs to cover off water ingress and durability. The TAH will offer monthly updates on this group and its wider work and its activities to the Laudes Foundation and to our collective contacts.
WP1 – Defining the problems relating to fire, risk and insurance (November 20 to May 21)
This work package will build on the work of the MTKH and G&T forum and explore with multiple stakeholders the problems/barriers and group them into common aspects.
WP2 – Action orientated problem solving for mass timber and insurance (November 20 to July 21)
The MTKH has started to examine the issues raised by the G&T forum on insurance. This work package will test and scope out possible solutions, ready for phase 2, where they will be developed further.
Achieving and measuring results
In Phase 1, the project will identify the various actors; clients, architects, insurance, building control, fire and rescue, planners and contractors and interview a selection of each. These interviews will be analysed to clearly identify and define the insurance related issues and perceived barriers and to set a road map to overcome them. Phase 2 will develop these actions into solutions, providing all the information needed by the various stakeholders in a format that is readily digestible by that industry. This project will unlock the vast potential that is timber in buildings, so reducing the embodied impact of construction and allow the built environment to act as a natural carbon capture and storage system. This will result in mass timber buildings enjoying a renaissance and fulfilling its potential as a progressive build system. A poll by the G&T forum suggested that 48% of the audience thought that if these barriers can be overcome then between 25-50% of all offices in the UK will be built with mass timber by 2030. Another poll found that industry action was very urgent (86%) and should be funded by both industry (42%) and by other sources, such as government (47%).
The main partners in the project are ASBP, Structural Timber Association (STA), Swedish Wood, Timber Trade Federation, TRADA, Woodknowledge Wales and Wood for Good, with expertise brought in from each partner as required. Between us we have over 2,000 organisations as members and 10,000 contacts. The technical lead will be a full time role over the duration of the project and will ideally have timber engineering, fire safety and insurance experience, as well as strong advocacy and communication skills. Interviews will be conducted by members of the TAH and the ASBP in March 2021.
The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products is materially agnostic and is therefore well placed to support the advocacy role within the project. ASBP Director, Simon Corbey is a RICS nominated expert on embodied carbon. ASBP has good existing contacts with central government and its membership includes ex MP Antony Colman, Cambridge University, who has offered to make introductions to senior figures within DCHLG and BEIS. Lord Andrew Stunnell has spoken at ASBP events and so there is an existing relationship. ASBP will also undertake the overall project management and project work for the TAH, employing and managing the technical lead. ASBP have a great track record for delivering successful projects and it will draw on the skills of its board members, which includes architect Ben Humphries, Architype and LCA expert Jane Anderson. The membership of ASBP includes leading specialist CLT supplier Eurban and a range of leading architects and contractors who have built in mass timber and would like to continue doing so, but are finding this increasingly difficult.
In discussions with these partners, there was real enthusiasm to work together and collaborate and their feedback suggested that this is just the right time to enable this approach and to coordinate actions, rather than tackle issues in a piecemeal way. As such, a number of organisations have expressed a willingness to contribute to the funding for the Timber Accelerator Hub across both phases. It is clear that this work is vital if we are to unlock the potential for timber buildings, but it is unlikely to take place in a co-ordinated and timely fashion, without funding from the Laudes Foundation. The timber industry is ready to collaborate and is very supportive of the TAH project.