Famed for its steel production, Wales may not seem the likeliest place to build its homes from timber. But the land of the dragons is overhauling its housing policies, and timber plays a pivotal role.

Wales hasn’t always been the king of steel. Two hundred years ago, locally grown larch was the building material of choice, and in 2018 the country harvested 1.6 million m3 of timber. While the majority of the harvested logs could be graded for construction, most leave for other markets such as packaging and fencing. According to estimates from Woodknowledge Wales, Welsh housing would require up to 200 000m3 of harvested logs to meet housing targets.

A house that was built using larch wood. Image credit: Wood for Good

A house that was built using larch wood. Image credit: Wood for Good

Putting timber and forestry at the heart of housing policy

Like England, Wales is in the midst of a housing crisis. Not enough homes are being built and the homes that are built are often of poor quality. These homes fail to address fuel poverty and lead to poor occupant well-being. The latest housing-need estimates in Wales indicate 8 300 new homes must be built each year. In 2017-18, Wales constructed 6 663 new homes, of which only 1 876 were affordable.

Wales is also conscious of the climate crisis and that 40% of the UK’s energy-related carbon emissions are caused by the built environment.

Subsequently, Wales is keen to bring housing, timber manufacturing and forestry together into a value-creating ecosystem to provide the commercial environment necessary for substantial and sustained investment in the supply chain.

Modern methods of construction

Not satisfied with leading the way with a focus on the development of local timber supply chains, Wales also embraces modern methods of timber construction, such as timber frame, which was used for the project in Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd.

The Welsh Government’s GBP90-million Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) recognises using timber combined with new and emerging forms of construction helps to deliver much-needed homes faster. Using home-grown timber also means Wales could exceed the objectives it laid out in its report ‘Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales’, released earlier this year, a topic also addressed in a Government-commissioned report by Woodknowledge Wales: ‘Zero Carbon Homes.’

As a result, one in three homes in Wales are now built from timber frame and more than 3 250 panelised timber frame homes were manufactured in Wales in 2018. Welsh-manufactured timber frame for social housing grew from 445 units in 2016 to 752 in 2018, an increase of 69%. In addition to timber frame, cross-laminated timber (CLT) is now gaining momentum in homes across Wales.

Timber frame’s popularity is due in part to its ability to meet Passivhaus levels of performance. And this approach to housing hasn’t been missed by Wales’ education sector. Burry Port Community Primary School in Carmarthenshire pays homage to the wonders that Welsh building materials can bring. Constructed from Welsh-grown larch, Douglas Fir and Sitka spruce, the school was the first Passivhaus school building in Wales. This has created a beautiful and sustainable environment for children to learn and play in.

Welsh timber: the perfect choice for high-end construction

The range of suitable softwood species in Wales places the country as one of the most favourable environments in Europe, according to foresters. This includes growing conifers such as Sitka spruce, Douglas Fir and other minor species. Welsh grown Sitka spruce is already strength graded to C16 and with new grading technology, mixed strength grades of C16 and C24 would be possible in Wales. Douglas fir and larch grown in Wales can already be visually strength graded to C24. Essentially, Welsh timber has great potential for use in high-end construction.

Recognising the great build quality that can be achieved using Welsh timber, architects and builders are increasingly specifying it for interior and exterior joinery, wood fibre insulation and external timber cladding.