Timber

29 May 2014 — Reduce carbon, make beautiful sustainable buildings, improve worker safety, incentivise tree planting and resolve one of the core issues at the centre of the native forest logging debate, which is long-term jobs and community economic well-being. Using timber for construction could be the making of a new, sound industry for Australia.

In terms of reducing lifecycle carbon footprints, timber’s benefits are many. The massive timbers offer another layer of social benefit, not only in terms of the jobs they can create if an Australian industry is allowed to develop, but also as a way of potentially resolving some of the conflict over our forest resources.

The forests debate centres around the logging of natural stands of native forests, such as the remnants in Tasmania. However, these are not the types of wood needed to fabricate laminated veneer lumbar, cross laminated timber or glulam. These use sustainably grown softwoods, which in Australia are predominantly Radiata Pine species.

Dr Phil Polglase

As program leader forest systems for the CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences division Dr Phil Polglase explains, these also happen to be among the types of trees that can do the most for our carbon footprint.

“Industrial forest plantation species [both softwood and hardwood] are genetically bred to be fast growing and relatively uniform,” Dr Polglase says.

“So industrial plantations store more carbon [than biodiversity plantings, for example] because of the tree breeding – they are bred to grow wood fast.”

For every hectare of plantation, he says, including both hardwoods and softwoods across all rainfall zones, the average rate of carbon abatement is about 20 tonnes of CO2 a hectare annually. Our current plantation estate of around two million hectares is therefore absorbing around 40 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

According to a CSIRO study he contributed to in 2013, Potential for forest carbon plantings to offset greenhouse emissions in Australia: economics and constraints to implementation, for every million hectares of biodiversity plantings, 1.4 per cent of Australia’s year 2000 carbon emissions level could be abated each year.

Can pine plantations in Australia be sustainable?

An obvious question is whether pine plantations, as an exotic species often grown under monoculture [single species] regimes with a clearfell approach to harvesting, can be called sustainable.

The Forest Stewardship Council in Australia believes they can be, and FSC chief executive Natalie Reynolds told The Fifth Estate that plantations comprise the largest proportion of about one million hectares of FSC-certified Australian production forests.

“Over 95 per cent of FSC Certified forests in Australia are plantations,” Reynolds says.

Most of these are native forest plantations of Eucalyptus Globulous and Eucalyptus Nitens, with some Pinus Radiata, with most currently harvested for pulp for paper manufacture.

Four major softwood plantation growers carry FSC certification – Hancock Victorian Plantations, HQ Plantations, Australian Bluegum Plantations and Timberlands Pacific.

Smaller footprints – big benefits

Stephen Mitchell

Stephen Mitchell, the Timber Development Association’s sustainability program manager, told The Fifth Estate the end result of using massive timbers in buildings is a reduction in a building’s total carbon footprint.

“The environmental benefits of massive timbers are very large. With Lend Lease’s Forté for example, compared to a normal building of its size and type, it has a reduced carbon footprint of about 1400 tonnes,” he says.

“Also, because CLT is solid yet lightweight, it is possible to fit more on the truck [than with other materials, as truck loads are limited by weight]. Lend Lease said there were 90 per cent fewer truck movements for Forté [because of using CLT]. This also means less noise, and less truck movements means better safety. Transport can be significant in terms of both carbon and cost for some sites.”

Lifecycle analysis stacks up

An RMIT Lifecycle Assessment study was undertaken, which compared Forté to other building systems in terms of total carbon emissions and embodied energy. The independent study was commissioned through the Forest and Wood Products Association. It showed that through the use of CLT in Forté had a 22 per cent lower global warming potential when the sequestration of carbon in the CLT at end-of-life is included, compared to a traditional reinforced concrete structure.

Mitchell points out that in detached residential dwellings, the use of timber frames has remained extensive, responsible for 90 per cent of the housing market. However, the situation is different for the commercial sector.

“Over the years [the building industry] stopped using structural timber in class 2 to 9 commercial buildings, including apartments,” he says. TDA is focused on increasing the use of timber in multi-storey residential and commercial buildings.

“It’s about educating [people in the industry] about how to use timber. Lend Lease has worked through the issues and capabilities, and lowering carbon footprints has been a driver for a lot of that decision making. If they can reduce the carbon footprint of one building by over 1400 tonnes, imagine what can be done across a portfolio. That is good news for big corporations,” Mitchell says.

Another key piece of research into the total carbon footprints of buildings was a RMIT Centre for Design study that examined the carbon impact of five different building typologies for residential construction. This independent lifecycle analysis, also carried out through the FWPA, assessed the total energy utilised and emissions generated when building, heating, cooling and, ultimately, demolishing a typical Australian, five-star energy rated home over a 50-year life cycle. The results showed houses that incorporate the most timber in their construction have significantly lower total emissions of greenhouse gases, lower levels of resource depletion, generate less waste on demolition, and have less energy embodied over their lifetime.

Timber gives and gives again in carbon terms

Mitchell has also undertaken research for the TDA on the end-of-life aspects of timber, including the engineered wood products. This includes reuse, recycling and renewable energy generation options.

“The evidence is [CLT and LVL] will be eminently reusable because of the large dimensions and robustness [of the timber products]. They should be readily re-useable in similar applications. If they cannot be re-used or recycled, they can be used for biofuels to generate renewable energy in place of fossil fuels,” he says.

In contrast to some timber products like a lot of particleboard flooring or treated pine, CLT and LVL are not preservative treated. They are also able to be manufactured with ultra low emitting formaldehyde and VOC glues. This reduces the pollution risks if they are burned for biofuels at end-of-life, and for the factories that use production waste as an energy source. Mitchell also points out these modern CLT and LVL factories have generally invested in good combustion technology and pollution control equipment.

More trees, please, and make them sustainable

Above all, Mitchell says using timber products manufactured from sustainably managed forests will encourage people to plant more, and will displace materials that are manufactured from fossil fuels [such as plastics] or are very fossil carbon intensive products, such as steel and concrete.

“In addition, no other major building material has international standards for what constitutes ‘sustainable’ [like] timber products have with the internationally recognised FSC and PEFC sustainable forest management certification schemes,” he notes.

“The big threat to biodiversity is climate change, and what’s driving that is combustion of fossil fuels. If we can move from a hydrocarbon economy to a carbohydrate economy, we will be making progress towards reducing climate change risks.”

Taking the pressure off the native forest resource

The Australian Forest Products Association has been outspoken about its position that the sustainability of the forestry industry requires greater access to native forests. It was the AFPA the Prime Minister addressed in March 2014 when he spoke of “unlocking” the forests in Tasmania to create jobs and save the industry.

That said, the AFPA also supports the need to address climate change, and sees forest industries such as plantation-based massive timbers as a genuine opportunity to do so.

Ross Hampton, chief executive of the Australian Forest Products Association told The Fifth Estate he sees enormous potential in mass timbers as a new manufacturing industry and as a major contribution to meeting our emissions reductions targets. He says Australia has a “world scale” fibre resource in plantation and hardwood timbers.

The FWPA gained agreement from the building code authorities for a three-storey timber building as a “set and forget” allowable structure under the national building code. This is, however, not reflective of the codes worldwide; in Europe for example, up to 20 stories is allowable in some regions.

In terms of CLT, one of the tallest CLT building in the world is still Lend Lease’s Forté.

“[Forté] was built at great cost [to Lend Lease]; they had to custom make all the design rules,” Hampton says.

“Until we get those changes [in the building code allowing taller timber buildings] accepted, we can’t get the companies in Australia investing in the manufacturing.”

Canada has embraced CLT as a building material, and Hampton says the Canadian government estimates it to potentially be an $80 billion industry. Worldwide, the number of companies making CLT has grown from 30 to 80 in the past six months.

“The 18th century was about timber, the 19th was about steel and the 20th was about concrete. The 21st century will be about timber again,” Hampton says.

“At a broad level, the forward supply contracts for plantations show there is a lot of timber looking for a [productive] home, and looking for higher value uses. These high value uses include building systems.

“In the end it is about where the economic benefit is.”

Steps towards a viable home-grown industry

At this point, importing mass timbers is the best way for the industry to start to move into this type of construction, according to Hampton.

“We have to get the building codes sorted out first.

“Timber is more cost-effective to build, and the environmental benefits are enormous, including a reduced amount of energy use [in material manufacture] and storing carbon in the building. We are talking about a net carbon sink, and these [tonnes of abatement] are enormously exciting numbers.”

According to the FWPA, of our two million hectares of plantations, both softwood and hardwood, while some revert to farmland after harvesting, the majority continue to be used as working plantations.

Hampton pointed out that according to the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the best form of carbon storage is through a working forest.

The IPCC has stated:

“In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

“We do have the knowledge about long-term forest management, and taking into account climate change, there is an adaptive management approach. There is constant improvement going on, Hampton says.

“The [Australian] forest industry can really hold its head up in terms of best practice. We can be proud of how much certification [in terms of sustainability] there is in this country – there is a negligible amount of forest in Australia which is not certified [under FSC or AFS standards] – globally only 10 per cent of working forests are certified.”

Growing jobs – but where’s the support?

One of the benefits of CLT, he says, is that there are always more jobs in downstream processing of any agricultural commodity than in the initial growing of it. While it is early days, he believes the mass timbers could provide crucial, year-round jobs in regional communities.

“CLT is an exciting proposition for us,” Hampton says.

However, there was currently no incentive in place for plantation investment, as government funds for productive plantings has ceased, and any private investor needs to be one with “a very patient outlook”.

Hampton hopes the Emissions Reduction Fund may prove a source of investment, and more broadly, believes the forest products industry needs to be recognised as a carbon sequestration industry in terms of the materials used in buildings.

“With the right policy settings, forestry can help with achieving Australia’s emissions reduction targets,” Hampton said. Their policy advocacy on this subject included sending a representative to the climate talks in Warsaw in 2013.

“We will continue to make our case, that we are there [mitigating carbon] at both the growing and end product ends,” he says.

Putting all the pieces together

Anissa Farrell

Anissa Farrell, senior associate and sustainability manager at architecture firm Conrad Gargett Riddel Ancher Mortlock Woolley is passionate about the potential massive timber use for tall commercial and multi-residential buildings has for achieving sustainability goals, including carbon abatement.

Farrell is currently engaged in research she hopes will give the building and property industry some confidence in what the materials can do. This research will bring together all the different threads – engineering, design, supply, fire protection, cost benefits, labour saving and safety benefits and lifecycle aspects. She is also engaged in ongoing dialogue with ESD consultants and structural engineers about the possibilities for CLT construction, and a community is forming of like-minded experts keen to drive acceptance of the sustainability and other benefits.

“There has been quite a slow uptake [of massive timbers],” she says. “It always takes a little bit of time for innovation to evolve.”

Farrell is finding that fire is one of the key risk perceptions stalling acceptance, and believes the emergency services and fire brigades themselves need to come on board and accept the material can be safe for the barrier to disolve.

Another major barrier is the lack of a locally made CLT product, but this is a chicken and egg situation, where as she points out, until there is demand, there is no business case for the large, high-tech plants required for CLT manufacture.

However, she says there will also come a point where concrete and steel will no longer be affordable, due to the rising costs of the energy required for these major carbon-intensive materials.

“Concrete is both labour and carbon intensive,” she observes, explaining that one tonne of concrete is responsible for 800kg of CO2 emissions, while one tonne of CLT generates only 100 kg of CO2 in its manufacture and transport, and is also storing a substantial amount of CO2 in the wood itself.

Her analysis of the labour and cost saving aspects of massive timber construction shows that with CLT, a contractor can achieve construction of one floor a day with only one truck, one crane and five workers. This is in contrast to traditional reinforced concrete construction, which can achieve one floor a week with around 30 workers, and requires more truck movements and generally more craneage.

Farrel says the research shows that it is possible to complete the structural building of an entire eight to ten storey apartment building with CLT in eight weeks, giving a developer not only a rapid result in terms of finished product, but also one which can be marketed as a green product.

“[Building with CLT] is a logistical process,” Farrell says.

“It is [also] good for infill locations and difficult sites, including construction above existing buildings and heritage sites.

Imagine if this sparked a whole new industry in forestry.”

Farrell is now aiming to complete a full scope research and development commercial project bringing together structural engineers, fire engineers and quantity surveyors to test the theories.

“Until we push [massive timber construction] it won’t happen,” she says.

“The sky’s the limit for what this product could do – it could go to 30 storey buildings.”

Wood Solutions are holding a series of free seminars on massive timber construction, see the events listing here.

So why is Australia not embracing the forestry opportunity more eagerly?

According to Dr Polglase, it comes down to the business model.

“In theory [plantation forestry] is good [for carbon abatement], but it needs scale. It needs hundreds of thousands of hectares in reasonably contiguous blocks to make the harvesting and transport of timber to mills for processing cost-effective,” he says.

“Australia’s current plantation estate is [around] two million hectares in total. If we want to establish two million hectares more, that’s a tough ask. It sounds like a good prospect, but it’s difficult.”

As highly effective storages of carbon, industrial plantations would be logical projects for carbon trading investment. A study in 2008, Economic and employment implications of a carbon market for industrial plantation forestry, found that plantation forestry, including the processing stage, creates more jobs than grazing or cropping.

Dr Polglase believes that while just growing carbon in trees is itself potentially a good business model, there is no single “best” model for using timber growing to abate carbon. He suggests bioenergy is another worthwhile prospect, with localised, distributed energy generation around Australia involving smaller, neighbourhood scale plants.

However, he says, getting any of it done in the current policy environment is difficult.

Carbon pricing could help

A carbon price can be an essential tool for rapidly expanding our plantation resource because there is an establishment cost in terms of materials and labour, a maintenance cost during the growth phase, and an opportunity cost in terms of profit foregone on alternative land uses during the years it takes for the plantation to reach maturity and deliver a return.

Carbon abatement funding would give the plantation sector stronger financial roots during the 10 to 20 year period of growth required before anything of commercial value (including thinnings and trimmings after the first decade) can be harvested.

Simply growing trees is not the whole answer to carbon abatement

“Timber can make a useful contribution [to carbon abatement], but it won’t solve the emissions problem,” Dr Polglase cautions. “Emissions are going to continue to increase unless we address them at the source.”

This means, he says, connecting the three layers of carbon footprint reduction that plantation grown timber offers – the growth phase, storing carbon as wood; the product substitution footprint, using the materials in buildings instead of steel and concrete; and the biofuel footprint, using trimmings, offcuts and sawdust to generate electricity.