Compiled by Leon Louw

This ambitious undertaking reflects a growing global trend to take wood to new heights in the built environment.

“Mention timber buildings, and most people think of ‘wendy houses’ or log cabins. They think ‘fire hazard’. They think deforestation,” says Roy Southey, executive director for Sawmilling South Africa (SSA).

In fact, the opposite is true, he says. The consumption of sustainable wood can help combat deforestation. Well-managed planted forests (plantations) reduce soil erosion, maintain the water balance in the surrounding areas and provide refuge for an array of species, thereby preserving biodiversity.

Good for the environment

Trees are nature’s biggest carbon sinks. As they grow, they absorb (sequester) carbon dioxide and store it as carbon in leaves, trunks, roots, and soil.

“The procurement of renewable, sustainably produced wood by the construction sector holds the greatest potential for climate change mitigation,” says Southey.

Some 0.9 tonnes of carbon are sequestered by one cubic metre of wood throughout its lifetime. With a timber-to-steel ratio of 9:1, Sumitomo’s 70-storey tower will require 185 000 cubic metres of wood, acting as storage for 166 500 tonnes of carbon.

Closer to home, South Africa has 1.2 million hectares of farmed trees which sequester around 64.8 million tonnes of carbon. These trees are planted, harvested, and replanted for the purpose of making sawn timber, pulp, and paper products, among other things.

When a harvested tree is made into a solid wood product or pulp for paper, the carbon remains locked up in those products. When the land is replanted with new trees, the carbon cycle begins all over again.

Good for building

Timber plantations represent 7% of the planet’s forest areas yet provide 50% of the wood for industrial purposes.

“There is an exciting move by architects as they look to the forest products sector for carbon-neutral and renewable options,” adds Southey.

Timber competes well with concrete and steel, in that it offers strength, can withstand seismic activity (not such a big factor in South Africa), and is much lighter to transport. “Timber structures are often prefabricated off-site, reducing both the construction times and associated costs,” he notes.

Modern wood-based construction materials are safe if treated and used correctly. They will also maintain their integrity in most fire situations, and will not melt, deform, or collapse.

Good for the economy

The South African forestry and forest product sector employs 158 000 people, with 690 000 people dependent on it for their livelihoods. The sector currently generates a gross value of R42-billion, of which R29-billion is exported in the form of beneficiated products.

The uptake of timber-based products in the built environment can further improve the prospects of the forestry industry’s lumber producers. It will be as important for the sawmilling industry, as nanocrystalline cellulose, bioplastics and biochemicals are proving to be in countering the decline of traditional paper products.

Good for the brain

According to a recent Workplaces: Wellness+Wood=Productivity Report, weaving wood into workplace design can be a major driver of wellbeing, job satisfaction and productivity.

Biologist and author Edward Wilson first popularised the ‘biophilia’ hypothesis that “humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life”.

When we consciously acknowledge that sustainably-produced wood provides work for thousands of people from tree nurseries to the housing sector, we truly can see the good in wood.