Fear of fire in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy is preventing a move to more sustainable building materials, a leading architect has told Sky News.
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architects, at the forefront of green building design, said the construction industry and regulators were very cautious about using engineered timber in tall structures – even though the disaster was in a concrete tower .
“They’re holding us back,” he said.
“(The UK) were the innovators of this stuff before Grenfell happened.
“Now we have a situation where the rest of the world is changing its building regulations, changing planning laws and government procurement for housing, hospitals and schools to promote the use of timber.
“And we are alone in the UK in doing nothing to promote the use of timber.”
Mr Waugh designed the new six-storey Black and White Building in east London, the UK’s tallest office building constructed from engineered timber.
Columns and beams are made from cross-laminated timber – layers of wood glued together at different angles – making them stronger than concrete and lighter than steel.
Both Norway and the United States have recently built skyscrapers from the material that are more than 80 meters tall.
But in the UK, structural timber can only be used in buildings up to 11 meters high – or up to 18 meters if there is a sprinkler system.
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Experts are divided on the dangers of engineered lumber in a wildfire. Some argue that the outer surface only characters, leaving the structural core intact.
But Rory Hadden, a fire safety researcher at the University of Edinburgh said charring still releases flammable gases – and more studies need to be done.
“I want to see wooden buildings. The benefits of them are real and they are nice places,” he said.
“But the worst-case scenario for me is that if something goes wrong just once, and there’s a major fire, the response will be to ban the materials and then we can no longer take advantage of those benefits because we’re going to have a huge hurdle to overcome.” ».
The construction industry is responsible for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. Cement alone represents 8%.
But timber is a carbon sponge. A tree absorbs 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce 1 ton of wood.
As long as the wood is intact and does not rot or burn, the carbon is stored for the long term.
Greensted Church in Essex is the oldest wooden building in Europe, with some of its structure dating back more than 1,000 years. The trees used to build it would have absorbed carbon dioxide from the air during the Viking Age.
Mr Waugh said a new wave of timber buildings could have a major impact on the climate crisis.
The Black and White Building has more than 1,000 tons of carbon locked into its structure.
“We need to transform our entire construction industry into one dominated by a timber architecture,” Mr Waugh said.
“We cannot continue to use the Earth’s resources and build buildings (of steel and concrete) that are very difficult to adapt.
“We can move wooden buildings, unscrew them and cut holes in them very easily.
“So the adaptability of these buildings, the low carbon qualities of this material and the fact that we can grow more of it means that timber is the future of architecture and the future of construction.”
Professor Michael Ramage, director of the Center for Natural Materials Innovation at the University of Cambridge, said 80-90% of buildings of 15 storeys or less could be made of wood.
“The world’s population is growing and growing mostly in urban centers,” he said.
“What we’re building now will probably be with us for 40 or 50 years, so this is an opportunity to lock in a sustainable way of building rather than continuing with materials that we know are bad for the climate.”
Building with timber is quick and clean compared to concrete.
It took four people just 14 weeks to connect the frame of the Black and White Building.
But mortgage companies and insurers want to back more of what they still see as new hardware.
Charlie Green, one of the founders of the Office Group, which leases space in the building to companies, said: “It requires a change of mindset from the industry to respond to what occupiers want.
“There are certainly risks in building this way. These come in the form of financing, which we secured, and fire and water damage insurance.
“We’re going to start those relationships early, providing comfort that this is being built in the best possible way and that we’re doing more than necessary to satisfy the concerns of the insurance community.”