NATURAL AND ENGINEERED WOOD: THE CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS OF THE FUTURE
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that humanity must now confront. The greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels are causing average temperatures on the earth’s surface to rise steadily: a gigantic problem that urgently needs to be solved.
The construction industry is also implicated in global warming, as it accounts for up to 30% of the alarmingly high and still-rising emissions.
The construction sector is capable of making a crucial contribution to the battle against global warming: the ways in which we erect buildings say a lot about our level of environmental awareness. Building with timber and wood-based materials can be an answer or at least a valuable opportunity to systematically offset climate change in the long term.
Wood is the only renewable raw material, and processing it to make engineered wood products emits dramatically less CO2 than producing conventional building materials such as steel, concrete, plastics, bricks or aluminium. It is also the only one that binds and stores carbon from carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas.
Forests Capture Carbon
Forests probably have the greatest potential for counteracting the warming of our planet. Germany’s woodlands alone contain some 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon, and each hectare of forest extracts roughly another 13 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere each year as a result of photosynthesis. In this natural process, the energy in light is used to split carbon dioxide molecules apart. The “bad” carbon atom is kept while the “good” oxygen atoms are released again. The carbon thus stays bound – or, more precisely, stored – for a very long time, even after the tree is cut down. Forests are described as carbon “sinks” as they actively bind carbon, while wood products “only” store it.
Wood-Based Materials Store Carbon for a Very Long Time
All wood products – including glulam, OSB, construction timber, wood furniture, and parquet and laminate flooring – store carbon that trees once captured from the atmosphere while growing. And the quantities involved are impressive! A cubic metre of wood can contain about a third of a tonne of carbon, which if burnt would turn into four times as much carbon dioxide.
For the sake of the planet, it therefore makes sense to store as much carbon as possible in buildings long-term while reducing the consumption of primary energy for heating at the same time. When we use wood to build new houses, modernise older ones, construct annexes, add storeys, or make floors or furniture, the carbon it contains is stored on a long-term basis. So with every cubic metre of wood that is used instead of another building material, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is slashed by more than a tonne.
A low-energy timber house, for example, can remove around 80 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. Add to that the fact that about 40% less CO2 is emitted while producing the building materials than would be the case with conventional construction approaches. These amazing figures explain why wood is the building material of the future!
Resource Conservation Is Paramount
However, here too it’s in our best interests to be prudent. We naturally need to use wood frugally, which means managing forests sustainably without harvesting more wood than can grow back. This way, trees can continue to offset climate change in a very natural way. In Germany, incidentally, more wood grows than is used.