Thanks to a growing awareness of the value of timber in sustainable, low-carbon design and recent changes to the National Construction Code (NCC), the use of timber construction systems is rapidly gaining popularity. Forest and Wood Products Australia’s (FWPA) WoodSolutions brand addresses the design and build sector, while Planet Ark’s Make It Wood campaign expands the positive messages of the forest and wood products industry to a broader consumer audience.

To some, a relationship between a company representing the forest and wood products industry and an environmental organisation may seem like the odd couple, but Planet Ark undertook extensive research before deciding they could support Forest and Wood Products Australia’s promotion of sustainably sourced timber.

Sean O’Malley, Planet Ark’s Technical and Research Manager, explains, “FWPA came to us in September 2009, and we kicked off the conversation about the environmental advantages of timber as an alternative to concrete and steel.”

“I spent the next 9 months or so researching the Australian forest and wood products industry and the way they worked. I talked to a lot of people in the industry and some of their critics. I also looked at the evidence for the environmental impacts of various building materials.”

“The fact that wood stores carbon - up to 50% of the dry weight of wood is carbon, removed from the atmosphere by a growing tree – and emits relatively low amounts of carbon during the production process (embedded carbon emissions) gives it a significant environmental advantage over most other building materials.”

“It’s not a simple issue, there are lots of parameters and qualifications, however, our conclusion was that Planet Ark could support the use of responsibly sourced wood and wood products, because they are better for the environment than most of the alternatives.”

Once that decision was made, the next step was to decide how best to implement it, and the answer was to establish a new Planet Ark Campaign, Make It Wood.

David Rowlinson, the Make It Wood Program Manager explains, “the fundamental organisational objectives of Planet Ark are providing people with positive steps to; leading a low carbon lifestyle, sustainable resource use, and to connect to nature. Given the increasing awareness of the health benefits we get from using natural material like wood – the so-called biophilia hypothesis - there are obviously a lot synergies between these organisational objectives and the increased use of timber.”

“A lot of people however, including some in the design and construction sector, have an instinctive reaction that harvesting trees is bad for the environment. It’s our job to help them understand that it’s not necessarily the case, that the use of sustainably sourced timber is part of the environmental solution, not the problem.’

“When you’re talking about timber, there are really four key environmental benefits: the first of course is that it’s renewable, the second is that it stores carbon, the third is that it has significantly lower CO2 emissions than more carbon intensive materials like concrete and steel, and the fourth is that it is certified.

“And the fact is that probably 95% of timber used in construction in Australia is either Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) certified. The system that uses PEFC in Australia is Responsible Wood (it was formerly called AFS or the Australian Forestry Standard). Both these use the Montreal Process, which requires that trees are replanted when they’re harvested. Our program relates more to the use, uptake, and certification stages because replanting is inherent within those schemes, whether the wood is from plantations or natural and native forests.”

For many years, there have been consumer organisations (such as Planet Ark) campaigning for sustainability, but it seems companies in the built environment are catching up, as David Rowlinson observes:

“Prior to joining Planet Ark, I was a CEO at a building products manufacturer, so I’ve seen things from both sides. Over the last few years – probably from about 2000 or thereabouts, because the Green Building Council started in 2002 – the focus on sustainability has increased significantly. We were actively involved in the Green Building Council from the start, and I can remember many years ago when the first Green Star building was certified… now there are well over a thousand.”

“Initially, of course, Green Star was met with some apprehension, but now it’s become second nature.” It’s become a much more widely recognised and used process, and has certainly become a prerequisite in the office sector: offices simply wouldn’t get away with trying to sell prestige locations without a formal certification in terms of energy efficiency, NABERS, Green Star, and so on. I would say that the landscape has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years, and it’s the same in other parts of the world, too.”

In May 2016, changes to the NCC that made it easier to use timber systems in buildings up to 25m, approximately 8 storeys, were enacted. The results are now beginning to appear on construction sites, especially in the mid-rise multi-residential sector, where designers and developers are realising the cost benefits of timber systems, beginning with traditional stick framing.

While FWPA’s WoodSolutions and associated activities are focussed on informing the design, development and construction sectors of the new possibilities of timber, Make It Wood supports this and extends the messaging to the consumer audience.

“We’d like to make the use of more timber in a building be perceived as a positive for people buying and living in them,” said David, “I also think that in the not too distant future, timber construction will become a bit like Green Star – when that was first introduced it was very sporadic and a bit misunderstood, and people were a bit apprehensive about it. But now it has become completely mainstream and perceived as adding value - and I am sure the same will happen with the increased adoption of timber building systems.”

“From my perspective,” said Sean O’Malley, “I’m predicting more consumer awareness of the benefits of certified timber. Even now, there’s growing awareness of the health benefits of timber, and good design combined with timber has so much to offer in terms of health and productivity. The adoption and widespread use of these two things together would be absolutely fabulous.”

About the Sustainability Awards

The Sustainability Awards is Australia’s longest running and most prestigious awards program dedicated to acknowledging and celebrating excellence in sustainable design and architecture. Nominations received are shortlisted and then winners for each category are announced at a five-star Gala evening hosted this year at the Star, Sydney on 11 October 2018. The daytime event Sustainability Live is a CPD-endorsed education event where industry experts present a range of topics to educate, inform and ignite learning. Buy tickets