News from the front desk: Issue 516 – In our major feature from Poppy Johnston this week, we look at timber.

Could there be a more complicated material?

It’s ironic that this most simple, natural and beautiful material, used since time immemorial for our building and furniture needs, is now a hotbed of political passions.

When wood started to be increasingly cited as a great material for greener buildings things were simple.

Yes, wood was good; yes, timber sequesters carbon. Yes, it feels warm and friendly and biophilic.

We even learned it changed the culture on building sites, from raucous and boombox noisy to a quiet almost respectful atmosphere. The number of workers could be counted on a couple of hands for a start, instead of the hundreds that come in and out of a conventional site, each with their own trade.

Instead of jackhammers and shouting there was quiet detailed fastenings and soft voices. Even the graffiti disappeared.

Now there are rumblings and questioning of timber’s true environmental value.

This is inevitable. Like every revolutionary material, engineering solution or movement, there’s a narrative arc. First there’s a unity of purpose. (Like climate change action; we are all united to convince the sceptics it’s happening). Now as the story evolves the passion turns to what are the best solutions. Groups start to splinter (no pun intended). Competing need to be discovered, tried and tested in an open forum.

The sidelined or marginalised groups nurse emotional baggage or commercial cost and they fight back to re-assert their prominence (or dominance). Soon the critiquing becomes intense.

Soon there is new “evidence” to prove that timber is not as fantastic as first thought.

There are issues with carbon abatement calculations, end of life disposal, forest management and sustainability verification, importation and the carbon emissions associated with that. Some even say some of the carbon calculators are wrong. And materials are pitted against each other, ignoring that often the best solution is hybrid.

Fire engineers have also chipped in with concerns about timber because, well, it burns. But does it? The experts say it chars and that far more dangerous is a burning building is steel, which can buckle in intense heat. (Even more dangerous are fitouts made of petroleum based materials such as furnishings, curtains, and synthetic carpets that can ignite a toxic flash.

In Poppy work we even learn that trees are like people, they use a load of carbon in their early days while they’re young and growing vigorously, but as they get older they become less efficient and stop absorbing carbon so readily.

At our Building Circularity symposium late last year (see the book here)  NSW Building Commissioner David Chandler pointed to the significant waste he’s seen on timber sites, so where were the environmental advantages?

With timber’s attraction for termites, there’s another issue.

It happens that alongside Poppy’s feature another article has been submitted in response to building designer Dick Clarke’s explosive piece a few weeks ago saying that the chemicals in timber treated for termite resistance are a ticking time bomb for the environment.

Professor Jeff Morrell director of the National Centre for Timber Durability & Design Life

University of the Sunshine Coast, says Clarke is wrong. The long-lasting termite poisons of yesteryear are no longer in use.

The chemicals now used are all effective at very low levels, he says, and they have “exceptionally low toxicity to humans and repel termites, providing protection for the life of the structure.”

Who’s correct?

We’re looking for more information on this and will cover these issues as it becomes available.  And it will become available.

As Professor Morrell told us on Thursday there’s a lot of research and thinking going into these issues especially with the rise of the circular economy and the drive to re-use and not trash.

Disposal of timber at its end of life is still a problem, he says, and it looks like the best solution for now is landfill in a low oxygen environment, which means the timber decays very slowly, (and therefore releases carbon very slowly).

But it’s probably not the only solution and he’s confident better advances will soon be made.

And that’s where we think we can all agree: the energy we spending now is no longer convincing sceptics that climate change is happening. That battle is done.

The big issue is how to slow it and reverse it. And that’s a big complex, political hot potato.

Get set for it to invade every part of our lives in the months and years ahead. And for it to make us all uncomfortable.

But that’s inevitable and we should welcome it, because it’s essential and totally urgent.

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