Healthy Buildings: Healthy Planet

Over 150 delegates from across the construction sector attended the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) Healthy Buildings conference recently, which this year focused on biodiversity, forestry and health and wellbeing.

One of the reasons people want to commission, design and occupy buildings made with timber is the way wood links us back to nature. The links between timber and nature were a big theme at this years’ conference plus how expanding the use of timber and more bio-based materials across the built environment, can deliver against the core principles of the circular economy.

Giving a keynote talk, DEFRA’s Deputy Director for Trees, Woodlands and Forestry, Bella Murfin, was clear that that the use of timber in construction was good for nature. Referencing the UK Government’s Timber in Construction Roadmap, she outlined the importance of forests and trees for nature and the climate and how the Environment Act is targeting an increase in tree cover in England to 16.5% by 2050.

Ms Murfin challenged the construction industry – particularly in England – to use more timber, pointing out the contrast between England, where timber frame is used in only 9% of newbuild and Scotland, where the figure is 92%. She added that timber construction can cut embodied carbon by around 60% - as was demonstrated in calculations carried out for one of the ASBP award-winning projects showcased on the day. Goldfinch Create and Play, a cafe and art space in Bristol used timber throughout. Analysis showed the whole life carbon came in lower than the RIBA 2030 climate challenge levels.

Bella Murfin also supported the greater requirement for design for deconstruction and re-use. Two of the day’s ASBP prize winners were doing exactly this. The Initiative Category People’s Prize winner Brittany Harris explained: “One of the major obstacles to reusing materials is just knowing where everything is.” Its Qflow materials tracking system creates an electronic record of material flows on and off construction sites, making the reuse of materials much more practicable.

Another ASBP People’s prize winner in the Product Category was the timber-and hemp-based ADEPT modular construction system that goes even further to facilitate deconstruction. The panelised system uses timber with a hemp-based insulation. This fits together with removable timber pegs and tongue and groove fixings so that it can be disassembled easily.

Crawford Wright, Head of Architecture for Schools and Colleges at the Department for Education (DfE), spoke passionately about how important interactions with nature are. “This was really brought home during the pandemic. The impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of children and young people are still being felt. While we can’t fix that, exploring the potential of biophilic schools – schools that bring students and nature close together – felt like something DfE architects could contribute.”

Crawford Wright’s team at DfE, working with the University of Derby, gathered research and information on biophilic architecture, and this led to the design and construction of St Mary’s Primary School, Derby using a SIP panel design and is the UK’s first purpose built biophilic primary school. The aim of the school design is to create an accessible landscape where planting is brought close to the buildings, to offer play, adventure and sanctuary. “The entire external setting encourages nature connectedness.” The school is also acting as a testbed, with intensive research into the experience and impact on students and staff.

The use of more broadleaf timber in construction could also support more biodiverse forests. Jez Ralph, Director of forestry consultancy Evolving Forests stressed the value of mixing tree species in planting, not just to benefit the many species that live in woodland, but to protect the forest itself and offer a fresh resource for construction to utilise.

“Construction is very focused on uniformity,” he said. “But a uniform age, single species stand is not ecologically robust. Climate change means more storms and more disease – what if spruce gets a disease? It’s high risk to have very few species.” Jez Ralph hopes for more use of UK grown broadleaf timber in construction, for example thermally modified poplar and sycamore that are compliant with structural requirements, saying: “Architects should think about the implications of their design decisions – go beyond just ‘timber is good’ and think ‘are we enhancing the forest’?”

The day ended with the announcement of the winners of the sixth annual ASBP Awards. All attendees had the opportunity to vote for their favourite entry in the Project, Product and Initiative categories of the awards, following short presentations from the nine finalists. At the evening awards ceremony and drinks reception hosted by ASBP board member Alex Sparrow, the winners of the Judges’ Award, decided following a series of site visits and interviews, and the People’s Prize were announced. The inaugural winner of a new award, created in memory of Neil May who helped set up ASBP and many other sustainability organisations, was presented to Richard Oxley.

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