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Why timber is better than steel in sustainable buildings?

Why timber is better than steel in sustainable buildings?

Choosing a material for the construction of zero carbon buildings is a thoughtful process. Mostly used materials include timber and steel, but, how to choose the one for your project is a major question. The climatic conditions and availability of particular materials can help to make a choice. If sustainability is concerned timber is the best option among the two.

Timber is a natural, renewable and sustainable building material with a lighter carbon footprint than steel. Maximising the use of timber in residential and commercial buildings can remove approximately 21 million tons of CO2 from the atmosphere each year. Timber is said to be the best material to build zero carbon homes compared to any other construction material.

The steel industry is among the three biggest producers of carbon dioxide. Steel plants are therefore a good candidate for decarbonisation. While the industry must adapt to these new circumstances to safeguard its license to continue operating in the long term. Steel also has some advantages as it is recyclable, earthquake resistant, non-combustible, does not warp or creep, is not susceptible to termite attack, has a shorter construction time, has reasonable costs, and so forth. It dose require huge amounts of energy and with the cost of energy soaring it impacts the cost. It is valuable material but it needs further exploration.

Many reasons make timber buildings more sustainable including its properties like low embodied energy (total energy required in constructing a building), CCS capacity (carbon capture and storage), easy maintenance, insulation, recyclability, etc., (Table 1). Choosing a timber type for a specific project is a major task. If wood is produced in UK/Europe then no worries but if not it’s better to choose certified timber.  There are many different ‘alphabet soup’ certifications, including FSC, PEFC, SFI, CSA, and MTCC. 90% of timber used in the UK is certified, while only 10% is from rainforests.

Using timber as a building-material substitute could save “14 to 31 percent of global CO2 emissions,” according to a recent study. Mass-built timber could also reduce carbon and fossil fuel output by using 34-100% of the world’s sustainable wood growth. Building with timber reduces the overall carbon footprint in several ways. Growing a tree is a low-impact method of production. Trees are grown in abundance all over the world and don’t need to be imported as transportation factor is a major factor to impact the environment. However, construction with any building material like timber or steel depends on the geographical location of the site.

For timber harvesting, there is a threat to a forest but according to many environmentalists believe harvesting trees improves forest carbon sequestration efficiency. When a tree is harvested, carbon is stored, and when another tree is planted in its place, carbon is likewise stored. As trees are planted, grown, and harvested, forests can be infinitely multiplied.

The timber sector is promoting the material with a campaign called Wood for Good. CLT has a lower carbon footprint than steel in manufacturing. Unlike steel or concrete, CLT does not need to be heated above 2,700°F. Heat isn’t needed unless the wood has been kiln-dried. “Reporting carbon emissions for wood involves a variety of assumptions and approaches,” said Kathrina Simonen, head of the Carbon Leadership Forum and associate professor of architecture at the University of Washington.

As seen by ancient wooden structures such as the Nara Temple in Japan, wood may be a long-lasting material. Its capacity to last hundreds of years and be disassembled and reconstructed keeps it out of landfills until it can be restored to the environment. Timber construction was mainly seen for 1-3 storey residential buildings, it may be used to construct structures up to 40 stories tall. Mid-rise (six to fourteen storey) structures have the most potential for timber construction. Wood is said to be the one sustainable building material. The reliance on fossil fuels is reduced by using legal, sustainable, and responsibly sourced timber. In addition, compared to other commodities and building materials, the processing of timber products uses less energy.

Steel production is one of the most significant generators of greenhouse emissions in the world. Massive amounts of iron and carbon are still used in production. Steel is required for the construction of infrastructure in a low-carbon economy. There are currently no discoveries that will alter the mass-production steelmaking recipe. Governments, too, have a role to play, according to both industry and environmental groups, by enacting laws that encourage higher emissions reductions and providing incentives to stimulate investment in carbon-cutting technologies.

Table 1 Comparison of properties for timber and steel

Properties comparison

Timber

Steel

Renewable resource, recyclable and biodegradable 

Nonrenewable, recyclable

Low cost

More costly

Low embodied energy

High embodied energy

Requires less energy for converting it to usable products

Requires high energy for converting it to end products

Natural carbon storing material 

Doesn’t store carbon

Easy fabrication with nominal processing

Energy intensive processing

Smaller carbon footprint (GHG emissions) compared to other materials

High GHG emissions (1 ton of steel production emits about 2 tons of CO2)

Air and water pollution low, balances the indoor air quality by acting as humidity regulator, Non-toxic

Air pollution (emit CO, SOx, NOx, PM2), produce wastewater contaminants, hazardous wastes, and solid wastes

Anti-corrosive

Corrosive

Termites’ attacks possibility

No threat of termites’ attacks

Aesthetically more appealing

Steel-framed building is lighter, and more durable

Lower yield strength 

Higher yield strength 

Easy to build

More labor intensive

Higher thermal insulation ability, it insulates 350 times more than steel

Possess 60% less insulating properties 

Low conductivity

Highly conductive

High Sound transmission

Sound transmission low

Higher energy efficiency

Low energy efficiency

Combustible in nature

Earthquake resistant, non-combustible, does not warp &creep,

Construction is time taking

Improves design efficiency, saves time

Lower strength-to-weight ratio

Greater strength-to-weight ratio

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