Unfortunately, no current conversation about timber is complete without comment on the government’s catch-all ban on combustible materials. At the end of 2018, as part of fire safety improvement measures intended to prevent another blaze like that seen at Grenfell Tower, the then Housing Secretary, James Brokenshire, introduced new legislation banning combustible materials on new high-rise homes above 18m.
In late 2019, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick called for the height threshold for combustible materials to be lowered to “at least 11m” (or typically anything less than three storeys in height). The second reading for the Fire Safety Bill – with the lowered threshold included – took place on 29 April. A date for the committee stage is yet to be announced and the consultation deadline has been pushed back to 25 May 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Architects, builders, suppliers of structural timber and many others passionate about the good that wood can do for this country, are now rightly concerned about what the future holds for multi-storey timber buildings. All while many other countries are passing legislation to promote the use of more timber products in construction.
While there’s no question that the Fire Safety Bill is intended to enhance occupant safety, we mustn’t lose sight of timber’s inherent qualities as a building material; benefits that have made it an increasingly popular choice for structural components. It’s easy to transport and modify, it minimises noise pollution on site and it’s highly cost-efficient to produce and use.
We as an industry are calling for an objective investigation; one led by facts and science rather than emotion. To quash the use of wood in structures over 11m would be to fly in the face of the sustainable evolution that the construction industry and, more importantly, the nation so desperately needs. Indeed, in its November 2019 report, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the timber industries said: “Without using safe structural timber we cannot meet these targets [the government’s net zero carbon commitment] and we will fail to address the construction industry’s contribution to climate change.”
A more sustainable, decarbonised economy can allow the planet to repair itself. The building materials we choose can be a key contributor to this. To choose timber is to choose a building material that would not adversely impact or inconvenience the way we live our lives; a material that can help build a more sustainable future. Responsibly managed forests have always been the earth’s air cleaners and will continue to be so forever. And a by-product of responsibly managed forests? High-quality, sustainable timber; timber that has already taken from the air and locked away decades’ worth of harmful CO2. Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architects – one of the UK’s leading proponents of timber construction – summed it up brilliantly earlier this year: “The reality is the evidence says we’ve got 12 years left to sort out climate change – we’ve got to start changing the way we do things. And we’ve got to keep pushing the message about the safety of CLT. It’s not only quicker to put up; it’s safer, healthier, lighter and locks away carbon.”