Christchurch street, 2015

In the fifth year after the first Canterbury Earthquake there is a renewed sense of urgency in the pace of the commercial rebuild. Busy is good, but busy generally means relying on tried and tested methods to get you to the goal, and little time is given to thinking through your options.

Before making a massive decision, it is wise to take time out, sit back and think through deeply about what you are committing to, and ask yourself, “What have I missed out? Have I considered all options? What if? Why?”

On some levels we have done that in the rebuild. The public consultation on what we wanted to see in a future Christchurch being the best example; but have we done so on a more granular level, particularly when it comes to construction materials and when we seem to be ignoring the use of timber products in the commercial rebuild?

Future needs

We are transitioning to a post-carbon era where sustainability (that is, long-term performance of systems), resilience (economic and environmental) and CO2 reduction will be critical to our future. Yet if we look at the construction techniques currently in use in the rebuild of Christchurch, is it being undertaken with any of that in mind?

The buildings we interact with and inhabit are relatively dumb (compared to say your car or computer) and although construction types and methodologies change over time it normally takes a significant disaster for us to really take a good look at how we build. In the post earthquake New Zealand we have had a change in the Building Code, however in the commercial rebuild our go to material is still concrete.

The public expressed their desire for a green, sustainable, beautifully designed city, but are we getting what we wanted? Concrete is one of the worst materials in terms of embedded carbon, it performs relatively badly in terms of seismic resilience and if utilised badly is just plain ugly. How many of the current crop of new commercial buildings would make it onto a postcard as a shining example of modern design?

Concrete construction, but at least with a hat tip to the old Christchurch.

Some questions that we could have asked in our moment of reflection may have included:

  • What legacy do we want to leave for future Christchurch generations?
  • What does our urban environment mean to you?
  • What feelings should you have when interacting with it the urban environment on the large scale?
  • How should the city inspire you at the level of your local environment at work or play in the city?

Why would we use wood?

There is just something life affirming about wood. It is natural, warm and connects us to the outdoors. It provides a beautiful environment that is pleasant to live and work in.

As Dorenda Britten, guru of design thinking in New Zealand says, “The thing about wood is that humans relate to it without effort. It’s warm and of a scale we can appreciate.”

Timber framing inside the Young Hunter building.

It is hard to disagree with that. It is rare that you would hear someone say that they are getting away to their concrete cabin in the concrete-scape. Even the most vocal of Stalinist supporters would get away from the drudgery of the urban Soviet landscape to their country dacha.

In fact, immediately after the earthquakes it was looking good for the use of timber. In June 2012, Ben Chapman-Smith wrote an article in the New Zealand Herald titled Timber industry warned to prepare for Chch boom. The anticipation was that in the post-quake rebuild timber was going to play a massive part, and not just in terms of the residential rebuild.

The reasons for that were not just the ethereal. Timber offers many rational advantages for use in construction in Christchurch as it:

  • is readily available
  • performs exceptionally well in seismic conditions
  • had seismic technology being developed on our doorstep at the University of Canterbury
  • is a sustainably sourced material
  • better acoustics
  • is potentially more cost-effective and quicker to build with

These benefits are backed up by one of the few occupiers of a timber building in Christchurch. Mark Nichols from Trimble, who occupies a timber framed building in Christchurch, is a convert.

“We are very satisfied with the outcome. The building works well and the timber is a great feature both from the look/feel of the building and also from the resilience of the structure. Construction was very efficient because it had a large “build off site” content. The erection of the main structural frame was very quick.”

One other example of timber construction in town is the Young Hunter building at 134 Victoria St, which had a great write up in an article that brings up some of the same points that I am here. Interestingly the design and construction methodology is even part of the sales pitch for leasing the building.

“Cutting edge structural technology”

As the rebuild gathered pace there was increasingly more examples of timber construction being used across the ditch. The property news site The Fifth Estate even ran an article in May 2014, Timber: the next evolution in construction, where they described how Australia could learn a significant amount from the timber industry in New Zealand.

Yet as of December 2014 there were only four timber framed commercial/industrial buildings that have gone up in Christchurch. So what has prevented the mass adoption and use of timber?

Business as usual wins?

Time is a great healer, but it also leads to memory fade. Immediately post-quake it was clear to see that your standard concrete tilt-slab construct didn’t fare so well.

Yes, most performed in terms of “life safety”, allowing people to exit the building safely, but in terms of economic and building fabric resilience most have had to be pulled down and rebuilt.

The team at Miyamoto International know seismic engineering quite well. They are experts in disaster mitigation and reconstruction from an engineering perspective, and if you scan their website you will see that they have offices in every region that has experienced a recent, significant, seismic event.

Remedial work being undertaken on a concrete slab building.

Christopher Haight, a native of California and director and lead structural engineer for Miyamoto in New Zealand, has been scratching his head a lot as to why we are not using more timber. In his mind Christchurch is an ideal candidate for timber construction, particularly for low rise buildings in the four-storey range. In California this has been the norm for the last 10 years or so.

The way he sees it is that there are two main barriers to timber construction that he would classify as regulatory and market based.

On the regulatory side he points to the fact that under the building regulations in New Zealand there is significantly more need for structural engineers in the seismic design phase of more complex buildings and so that adds cost to a build. Similarly, the majority of engineers and indeed architects in New Zealand haven’t had the exposure to working with detailed seismic design in timber, and so to get a building up quickly and on budget, most designs stick with concrete.

On the market side, the cost and availability of building materials is a hot topic in the rebuild and Haight is certain that this plays a part in the inertia towards timber. Comparing the costs of just small pieces of timber in a builders merchants in New Zealand versus California is scary.

It seems that although we have plenty of timber available locally it is for the most part shipped offshore, treated and then sent back to us at a sizeable mark up. Tony Sewell, chief executive of Ngai Tahu agrees and last year issued a challenge to the market to look at the costs of materials in New Zealand.

A common sight on the Christchurch landscape.

Even if the raw material was easy to source and well priced, there are other ease of use challenges. Simpson is a manufacturer of preformed timber products, supplying a wide variety of specifically designed connectors that facilitate timber construction, especially in areas of high seismic risk.

The sheer size of the Simpson US/EU product guide is quite telling, as it is over four times as thick as its New Zealand counterpart. They are expanding their offering in New Zealand, but it will be awhile before all the options are available, and once again the Sword of Damocles that is BRANZ approval hangs over many of these “new ideas”.

Dorenda Britten agrees that market forces are having an effect. The big issues she sees are the lack of user-ready construction data, lack of supply chain investment and a lack of belief in timber.

“Why is it that we often refer to timber versus permanent materials when describing a building style,” she says.

Britten also has other concerns regarding timber for the local market.

“Since the 1970s our timber products have been coming to the market too early, resulting in warping and splitting. Just look at any number of expensive new wooden fences buckling and warping after a few months around Christchurch. We see low quality timber so we don’t believe it has value – so we sell it for nothing.

“Laminating timber can add significant value to our current low quality and therefore low value export resource, and yet domestically we still prefer to import steel and the ingredients for making concrete. The construction sector has always been boom and bust in NZ and there has been a great fear that Christchurch and Auckland bubbles will burst leaving timber investments high and dry.”

I concur that market forces are a major driver for new buildings in Christchurch. The changes in land and construction prices, as well as the uncertainties of the market all mixed in with varying amounts of success in insurance pay outs, means that building owners need to be quick to market to capitalise on the early tenants looking to move, particularly those that want to get back into the CBD.

More haste and less speed perhaps? There are many commercial buildings going up quickly, but what is the quality like? As I have already commented, the introduction of NABERSNZ could in the medium term have a massive influence on the market, and the quick and the cheap may no longer prove to be financially viable buildings over time.

Sustainability adviser Sean Barnes notes “a building represents a long-term investment – are we designing buildings that are ready for a future of energy efficiency, sustainability and resilience to seismic activity?”

On a macro scale we still lack clarity on longevity. You can understand why investors and owners want to get a low risk, quick return on their investment, but that is because we look at ownership in the short-term. New Zealand is fixated on property as an investment tool and we often look for a return in decades.

Take an intergenerational perspective

What if instead we took a view to the rebuild of Christchurch from an inter-generational perspective? Many of the great buildings around New Zealand were built to last as a legacy. I struggle to see many, if any, of the current crop of buildings lasting one generation.

On the smaller scale, Nate Harrold, senior associate/design manager for Miyamoto, goes on to suggest that the wider consultancy and construction fraternity is just not up to speed for timber builds.

Nate: “How many framing hammers have you seen on a building site in Christchurch?”

Me: “What’s a framing hammer?”

Nate: “Exactly, that’s the problem. On a timber build in the US the crew would have specifically designed framing hammers that are weighted to be efficient and easy to use for building timber constructs.”

A framing hammer

In Seattle, where he is from, a small crew of four or five guys could get a preformed timber building up inside a couple of weeks.

Hope for the future or is it too late?

Looking at the rate of buildings popping out of the ground, it looks like it is too late for Christchurch to have a significant proportion of timber buildings.

Haight estimates that we are probably five years away from mainstream adoption, too late for the Canterbury rebuild, but he is hopeful we will see some in the future of both Auckland and Wellington.

Harrold is slightly more optimistic and sees a glimmer of hope as “the cost of precast concrete is increasing so it is now no longer the poster boy of quick and easy”.

This sentiment was echoed by James Lunday from Common Ground. Lunday and his team are working on a medium density housing project in Hornby, and the choice of material is timber. For Lunday it was a decision around resource constraint.

“When you look at the big projects coming on line, even just the conference centre, there just won’t be enough concrete in Christchurch,” he says.

In Lunday’s opinion it is highly unlikely that anyone would build a new factory for making extra concrete in the short term and the cost of importing for his project was prohibitive. There are a few medium and high density residential projects still to come so perhaps a few of them will have some similar thoughts.

Harrold feels that the large scale uptake will definitely occur in the future, but to guarantee that we need to get timber into the curriculum now in engineering and architecture training.

“You need a passion to build timber, it’s not a vehicle to making money,” he says.

In my mind the same could be said of the role of other consultants (surveyors, engineers etc) to a project, whose role is to challenge and provide insight and ideas, but it seems the wider industry also needs to take the blinkers off.

Timber has served us well in construction in New Zealand. All of the houses of any historic significance used timber, indeed we have the largest timber framed building in the Southern Hemisphere with the Old Government building in Wellington, but as Harrold says, “It seems that the commercial application of timber is a lost art in New Zealand.”

Advances globally

More recently, on a global scale, there have been some significant advances in timber construction, allowing for greater height and span of projects. The Forte apartment complex in Melbourne is the world’s tallest at present at ten stories, but there are two projects on the table in Scandinavia looking to create a 30 to 34 storey complex.

Dinell Johansonn from the architects CF Moeller who are looking at the larger project spoke to Dezeen magazine saying, “The main reason it hasn’t been done before is that concrete and steel have a big part of the market, but now the building industry has started taking responsibility for the environment.”

He continued: “Construction accounts for around 30-40 per cent of CO2 produced in the world globally and if you look at the CO2 released in the production of wood it is a lot better than steel or concrete.”

It is a shame then that in “100 per cent Clean, Green, New Zealand” we are apparently way behind the rest of the world in terms of being environmentally conscious in construction. We could, and perhaps should, have been the global thought leaders.

Where is BRANZ in all this? They seem to be keen to see what can be done, however Britten feels that the construction sector pays a high price for certification data on products but the promise of BRANZ was more than this.

“As I understand, it was founded and funded to test new construction materials and techniques but has failed to deliver,” she says.

Similarly there was a recent article in the press by Jo Goodhew, associate minister for primary industries, that had a lot of talk about how great timber construction is, and the opportunities for higher value exported products. It even mentioned an MPI survey that was recently conducted that indicated that:

“Supply chain blockages, skills shortages, information gaps, biases and manufacturing capacity are all slowing the growth of engineered timber use in New Zealand.”

That’s great we now know that officially, but where is the direct action to make things happen or to at least be a catalyst to activity?

Britten has had extensive involvement with The Fletcher Group and she says, “I may be naive but I think the government missed an opportunity to encourage investment in alternative building technologies right back at the beginning. We know of course that companies such as Fletcher have a stranglehold on government, and their interests would not have been served by competition.”

What if?

We are exporting most of our laminated timber for want of a properly organised supply chain locally. Britten says, “I wonder why we don’t take the view that if we become experts we can add extreme value to our currently low return timber exports. We consider ourselves as an innovative country but in reality we are cautious followers in the main.”

On the global market New Zealand trades heavily on it’s image of a pristine environment, and while across the ditch there is the perception that we are leaders in timber construction we could really cement that image (pun intended) in this industry, but once again we seem to not be walking the walk, or even aware of the potential opportunity for the taking.

As much as there is the opportunity to rebuild “The Garden City” with stunningly beautiful architecture and resilient design, there is also the massive potential that we can develop technology around timber construction and be able to export ideas and products around that, but it seems we need to get back up to speed first in deploying it locally.

I will leave it to Mark Strom, leadership expert and philosopher, to sum up where I feel that we should be in the terms of our use of timber:

“Somehow design needs to help us live well. And I think it can. After all, at its most basic and perhaps most important, design is about how we bring intention to what we make. That notion of intention suggests to something about how wisdom can shape design and how design can shape wisdom.”

In the shadow of all the sorrow caused by the earthquakes, we had an amazing opportunity for Canterbury to display it’s wisdom and intent on a global scale.

Let’s hope there is time left for us to do so.

Tim Jones is a New Zealand-based consultant.

This story was originally published on Tim Jones’ website.

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  1. Your readers may be interested in this detailed report (2012) ‘The Case for Tall Wood Buildings – How Mass Timber Offers a Safe, Economical, and Environmentally Friendly Alternative for Tall Building Structures’

    They may also be interested in the recently completed Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC) located in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada. At 29.5 metres-high with six floors and a mechanical penthouse, WIDC is the tallest wood building in Prince George and the tallest contemporary wood building in North America.