They are also mostly in the dark about the sustainability gains the new materials offer, and on that, they’re not alone. Even most people in the property, insurance and finance sectors appear to be somewhat bemused by the idea massive timbers might overtake traditional ferroconcrete or brick-and-steel.

Now a research from Monash University commissioned by the Forest and Wood Products Association shows that this lack of understanding about timber comes with a cost implication.

Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Widespread Acceptance of Mass Timber Construction in Australia, by Dr Paul Kremer and Dr Mark Symmons, shows, for one thing, that insurance brokers are likely to load premiums for mass timber buildings.

As one broker told researchers, the industry is in a data vacuum in terms of the risks, so even if the construction is cross-laminated timber, laminated veneer lumber or glulam, brokers will mostly classify them as standard timber buildings, which attract a higher premium than concrete and steel or brick constructions.

“The only way to get a new product’s measure from an insurance perspective, to be honest, is to have some fires in these buildings,” a property underwriter told the researchers.

“We understand that the building code is designed to allow everyone to get out of the building in a controlled manner, and recently in the Docklands [in Melbourne]  there was a fire. It went up the façade of the building. The insurance industry has been warning about such failures for years. The product meets regulatory compliance at the moment but yet the fire happened. If you simply say ‘oh it’s fully BCA compliant’ well the insurance industry would simply turn around and say ‘ well, we have had enough examples of things that are BCA compliant and we have had issues’.”

One underwriter suggested that because Europe and the USA have been using mass timber construction for longer, and there is more data on the risks and fire performance, looking offshore for a better insurance price could be a smart move.

This is one of the recommendations made by the researchers as a way of progressing the growth of industry.

“As an alternative building material and a process for commercial buildings, up to 30 storeys, Mass Timber Construction has the potential to disrupt the current equilibrium of construction in Australia,” the report said.

“However, despite reported benefits in terms of on-site costs and sustainability the potential remains unrealised, due at least in part to a lack of understanding across a number of stakeholders in the building and construction process.”

The industry barriers were categorised into two types – material and method.

“Material based barriers include the considerable difference in the way timber structures are designed and delivered compared with more traditional forms of construction.

“The often lacking and prejudicial perceptions of MTC present considerable challenges because of questionability concerning the technology’s durability in terms of fire, rot and structural integrity…”

Method based barriers include “a lack of open source financial and commercial information for risk management purposes”.

From a consumer perspective, they found that there was a low level of awareness about what massive timbers are, and most people actually believed they would have a greater carbon footprint than concrete and steel construction.

Participants who had some understanding of the environmental performance aspects of homes had little awareness of the benefits of mass timbers in terms of energy and thermal performance, except for participants who had involvement in the industry and prior knowledge of the products.

People who regarded sustainability as important in the next property they purchased also tended to have concerns about the origins and sustainability profile of wood in a timber home.

Locally-sourced and manufactured mass timber product with appropriate certifications would be more acceptable to eco-focused home buyers, the researchers found.

A total of 16 recommendations were put forward by Dr Kremer and Dr Symmons for builders, architects, developers, designers, manufacturers and suppliers to start resolving the barriers they identified:

  1. Developing data and information exchange programs/collaborations with European organisations.
  2. Participate in overseas study tours, particularly to projects in Europe and Canada.
  3. Leverage financial service premiums (insurance and investment) by using global organisations.
  4. Use brokerage firms. Builders, developers and associated stakeholders could use brokers for insurance and finance.
  5. Manufacturers producing product specific applications using MTC such as a CLT lift shaft or stair system.
  6. Develop cost-saving case study scenarios specific to builders at various tiers/levels.
  7. Create MTC portable displays and walk-through showcases for people to talk through at trade shows, conferences and meeting places such as universities.
  8. Undertake full-scale testing via internationally credible sources, such as FM Global.
  9. MTC manufacturers and distributors could formulate optimal designs for pre-fabricated solutions for complex on-site problems.
  10. Develop green information to inform consumers about the environmental attributes and sustainable design practices that are inherent in MTC buildings.
  11. Consumers also need information about durability, particularly in terms of how MTC construction practices protect from rot and termites, and how mass timbers resist fire.
  12. Deliver different messages for different age groups – the research found that younger people will respond to information on structural soundness and environmental benefits; older property buyers have stronger inherent support for the use of timber.
  13. Educating potential buyers on the benefits of timber in terms of comfort and running costs could enable property developers to attract a price premium for MTC projects.
  14. Builders and developers could focus on promoting the benefits of a “revolutionary new construction method” rather than mentioning the timber. “However, not mentioning the use of timber eliminates the ability to promote a number of the environmentally sustainable design features and benefits (carbon sequestration and lower emissions) which consumers in the present study expressed are important in property purchasing decisions.”
  15. Focus on human-centric approaches to resource use in green marketing.
  16. Consumers could be led to a position of achieving a degree of “environmental utilitarianism” in their acceptance of timber – a middle ground between either no logging, or not caring about the environment – seeing MTC as achieving the maximum benefit possible from an environmental resource in that it is a low impact technology compared to environmentally costly concrete and steel.
  • Read the full research paper here

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  1. I note at paragraph 7 of this article a quote from the research attributed to a property underwriter, which if correct appears ill informed and if symptomatic of the wider under-writing industry represents a potential misplaced understanding.
    The quote, which refers to the Dockland fire of November 2014, appears to suggest that the materials used on the building were compliant with the BCA and that as there are other examples the insurance industry is of the view that the BCA cannot be relied upon to deliver buildings that will perform.
    Based on the information available to the ABCB, the external wall material was used in a manner that did not comply with the requirements of the BCA, which has subsequently been found to be the case for several other buildings audited by the Victorian Building Authority.
    To therefore say that the only way for a premium to be applied to mass timber construction is to have some fires further implies that the new standard for construction for mass timber buildings in the BCA can not be expected to perform.
    This ignores the considerable research and testing conducted for the standard, which had to satisfy the ABCB’s peak technical advisory committee(including AFAC and the FPAA), has incorporated additional redundancy measures and which had to demonstrate that construction in accordance with it satisfies the performance requirements of the code.
    It would therefore be wrong of the property broker, unless substantiated with evidence, to draw a link between what appears to have been the non-compliant use of a product that contributed to the spread of a building fire and applying a higher premium to mass timber constructed buildings built in accordance with the BCA, due to the belief that compliance with the BCA leads to under-performing buildings.