By Benjamin Brits
Throughout the rest of the world, timber houses are the preferred solution for the affordable housing market, but South Africa unnecessarily continues to hold brick and mortar as the number one choice.
Until the start of the 1800s the primary method for building houses was timber construction. With the introduction of concrete, steel and clay products, these took away a significant market share and it was only until the early 2000s where timber construction was again on the upturn.
In South Africa specifically, the concept of timber construction is looked upon as a product for affluent people where this is not the case in reality. Another major factor for the South African market is that most people’s experience of wood is that you throw it on a fire to fuel a braai, which naturally raises concerns around safety.
Technology in this space has taken giant leaps over the past decade in construction methods, treatment and structural strength. Timber construction is no less safe than any other conventional building method once treated correctly, and couples very well in mixed use form. In countries like Switzerland, the US, the UK and Australia, multi-level buildings can be found between two and 12 storeys. Currently the Chinese are designing a building that will rival the Eifel Tower which is 300m tall.
Timber as a construction material, depending on the level of treatment, can have up to a 60-minute burn rating. Fire risk is considered one of the major influencers on this choice of material, however studies have indicated that when treated timber is burnt, it forms a char layer protecting its structural integrity.
Modular timber buildings and pre-fabricated systems are available in South Africa for the affordable housing market and suitably fit the targeted price range for the sector too. Wooden ‘container’ style products are also available that can be adjoined or stacked to two levels. Cross Laminated Timber or CLT panels can be prefabricated, laminated beams are available for tall timber construction, and a variety of insulation products and cladding can be added to the solution.
Timber construction can also be finished off with fibre cement, timber cladding, gypsum fibre, corrugated sheeting and even plastered using a mesh base, making it a highly versatile solution. On multi-story construction, light concrete floors can be also added if required. Timber as a construction material is also covered in the National Building Regulations and complies with SANS requirements.
The appeal of this construction method is not only the speed of delivery, it is the speed of construction on site and these are major factors to consider when realising the housing backlog we have in South Africa. In addition, timber construction is a sustainable solution as it is a truly renewable material and is also effective in removing and storing carbon. Cement, sand and clay are all finite resources and essentially cannot solve the housing situation we see by themselves.
Timber sourced from certified forestry for a complete building can be grown again in only a few minutes which adds to its appeal as a solution. Timber also has natural quality of insulation and is typically warm in winter and cool in summer. Under the circumstances of water scarcity, timber construction also uses 90% less water than brick and mortar construction. Prefabrication also has the added benefit of highly reduced waste elements as all components are produced through CNC technology.
As we are in a new technological era, these solutions cannot be ignored for much longer and all industry role players in fact need to move with the advancing technology and the times. We don’t need any more reports to tell us the statistics – we already know what needs to happen. We need faster and more efficient ways to solve our housing challenges and timber construction is a strong contender.