Fear of fires in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy is hindering a switch to more sustainable building materials, a leading architect has told Sky News.
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architects, who is at the forefront of eco-building design, says the construction industry and regulators have been too cautious about using engineered wood in tall buildings – even if disaster strikes in concrete towers.
“We were stopped,” he said.
“Before Grenfell happened, (the UK) was an innovator in this material.
“Now we have a situation where the rest of the world is changing their building codes, changing their planning laws and government procurement of housing, hospitals and schools to promote the use of wood.
“In the UK, we are the only ones who are not doing anything to promote the use of wood.”
Mr Waugh has designed the new six-storey black and white building in east London, the UK’s tallest office tower made of engineered timber.
The posts and beams are made of cross-laminated timber – layers of wood glued together at different angles – making them stronger than concrete and lighter than steel.
Both Norway and the US have recently used the material to construct skyscrapers over 80 meters high.
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 risk of engineered wood in a fire. Some believe the outer surfaces were simply charred, leaving the structural core intact.
But Rory Harden, a fire safety researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said charring would still release flammable gases – and more research was needed.
“I want to look at timber buildings. Their benefits are real, and they’re nice places,” he said.
“But to me, the worst-case scenario is that if there’s a problem once, and there’s a fire, people’s reaction will be to ban these materials, and then we can’t take advantage of the benefits anymore because we’re going to have problems to overcome. Huge obstacle.”
The construction industry accounts for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. Cement alone accounts for 8%.
But wood 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 a long time.
Grinstead Church in Essex is the oldest timber-framed building in Europe, with parts dating back more than 1,000 years. Around the time of the Vikings, the trees used to build it would absorb carbon dioxide from the air.
Mr Waugh said a new wave of timber construction could have a major impact on the climate crisis.
More than 1,000 tons of carbon are stored in the structure of the Black and White Building.
“We need to transform the entire construction industry into a timber-based construction industry,” Mr Waugh said.
“We cannot continue to use the earth’s resources and build buildings (made of steel and concrete) that are very difficult to adapt to.
“We can easily move timber buildings, unscrew them and make holes in them.
“So the adaptability of these buildings, the low-carbon nature of this material and the fact that we can grow more wood means that wood is the future of architecture and the future of architecture.”
Professor Michael Ramage, director of the Center for Innovation in Natural Materials at the University of Cambridge, said 80-90% of buildings 15 storeys or less could be constructed from timber.
“The world’s population is growing, and it’s mostly in urban centres,” he said.
“Everything we build now is likely to be with us for 40 or 50 years, so this is an opportunity to lock in sustainable ways of building, rather than continuing to use materials that we know are bad for the climate.”
Building with wood is quick and clean compared to concrete.
It took four people just 14 weeks to fasten the black and white building’s frame together.
But mortgage companies and insurers are taking a more convincing approach to supporting what they still consider a new material.
Charlie Green, one of the founders of Office Group, which rents out space in the building to companies, said: “This requires a change in the way the industry thinks about responding to the needs of the occupants.
“There are definitely risks involved in building this way. Those risks come in the form of the funding we get, and the insurance for fire and water damage.
“It’s about getting those relationships started early and it’s comforting that they’re being built in the best possible way and that we’re doing more than we need to to meet the concerns of the insurance community.”