The sustainable timber trail

The relationship between forestry and the construction sector is a complex one. A new research project driven by the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) looks to enhance traceability and transparency in mass timber supply chains using digital technology.

Forests play a vital role in maintaining the health of the planet, including carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation. The construction sector uses approximately 40% of wood products globally, but supply chains make it challenging to understand the positive impact of sourcing sustainable timber.

There is a disconnect between forestry and construction. Even well-informed individuals within the construction industry frequently lack comprehensive knowledge about the ramifications of timber product sourcing, leading to ongoing debates about the sustainability of wood solutions and concerns over potential harm to biodiversity caused by harvesting practices.

In light of the increasing popularity of timber structures, such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL), among architects and builders, addressing this knowledge gap has become imperative.

Hence, the launch of Innovative Mapping and Processes to Advance Construction Timber Transparency (IMPACTT). This research project aims to debunk myths surrounding the environmental impact of sourcing timber products while bridging the gap between the forestry and construction sectors.

Leading the initiative is the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP), a non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting the use of demonstrably sustainable building products. The project is collaboratively supported by key partners, including the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC UK), Double Helix Tracking Technologies, Agrodome, Woodknowledge Wales, Stora Enso, and Eurban, with additional support from CEI-Bois and Timber Development (TDUK). The project is generously funded by Built by Nature, a network and grant-making fund with a mission to accelerate the transformation towards timber and biobased construction.

A path to transparency

The core solution proposed by the IMPACTT project is to increase the transparency of timber supply chains in construction. This will be achieved through tracing the supply chains for five/six timber buildings. The project will identify the carbon footprint and biodiversity conditions in the associated forests, and then present this data via interactive supply chain maps.

Furthermore, this project aims to introduce QR codes for timber buildings, allowing users to scan and access a map showcasing timber building locations. These interactive maps will enable users to explore building details, including photographs, timber types used, and sustainability credentials, such as embodied carbon. Users can then follow the supply chain of timber products, through sawmills to the source forests. This educational journey will encompass information about forestry practices in specific forests, biodiversity conditions, carbon sequestration, and other critical sustainability data.

Such interactive supply chain maps offer a clear and engaging method of communication, especially for the complex subject of supply chains. The project’s ultimate goal is to empower building users and the broader construction community to make informed decisions and inspire developers to prioritise timber over conventional building materials.

Influencing timber certification schemes

The other critical impact of the IMPACTT project is its potential to influence timber certification schemes, particularly with PEFC involved in this project, to integrate carbon and biodiversity assessments.

PEFC is the world’s largest certification system for sustainable forest-based products, with over 280 million hectares of certified forests. The scheme undergoes regular revisions every seven years, with the next revision cycle commencing this year. PEFC is already exploring methods to integrate new criteria, including carbon and biodiversity assessments, into its certification processes, with projects like carbon stock and emissions mapping of tropical forests in West Africa. This research project could serve as proof of concept and have a significant impact on the implementation of these changes.

Selecting timber buildings to trace

The IMPACTT project officially commenced in September 2023 and is set to run for one year. The initial phase includes the selection of timber buildings in the UK, Netherlands, and other European countries. The project aims to choose diverse types of buildings with compelling stories. The intention is not only to highlight the sustainability of wood structures but also to emphasise the unique stories, missions, and values these buildings hold for their communities.

Among the potential case studies are buildings serving charity organisations, educational institutions, hospitals, and care facilities. Additionally, the project may consider buildings incorporating reused timber in their facades, as well as notable structures such as the UK’s tallest mass timber office building and the Netherlands’ tallest timber-hybrid residential building. A list of 42 recent timber buildings is currently under consideration.

For the latest updates on the development of this project, questions, or recommendations, contact Simon Corbey, ASBP Director:

IMAGE: Timber in construction is growing rapidly as a low carbon building material. Courtesy Stora Enso

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