Changing to Timber Homes

timber homes are kinder to the planet
Berllan Aur (Gold Orchard), Boncath Garden Village, Pembrokeshire. Photo by the author 

Homes Made of Wood

Would you like to live in a house made of timber? Because using timber for construction is much kinder to the planet than using bricks and mortar, or tons of concrete.

Six years ago, I launched Ty Solar© homes as a pattern book approach to off-site manufacture of low carbon homes. Businesses like mine are in the minority. We have struggled to get an invitation to the table from public sector bodies who commission housing projects.

We have made some modest gains in West Wales where the government has been keen to promote zero carbon homes. But we feel the challenges that lie ahead in getting to net zero in new build housing will not be technical. Breaking down cultural, economic and industry barriers to change will be far more difficult.

The government needs to mandate new design standards as an important step to forcing through transformation in the sector.

Good Showing in Carbon Audit

Wood Knowledge Wales, an organisation set up to encourage the use of timber in domestic construction, did a carbon audit. It concluded that over a 60-year life of Ty Solar© each home would avoid the use of 300 tonnes of carbon.

Imagine a small development of say 200 new homes and you’ve avoided nearly 70,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is both because it saves the high carbon construction costs of bricks, concrete and steel building materials, and also because the resulting insulation of the home is better.

Domestic Feng Shui

A Ty Solar© house is designed on passive principles. It has a 14kW solar PV (photovoltaic) roof and a Tesla battery to store energy. The passive design absorbs radiation from the sun via its south facing windows (none on the north side) and the timber superstructure keeps it contained well after sunset.

It’s like the feng shui of good domestic design. This design concept provides around 80% of the space heating from the greatest energy source on earth. I mean, that great nuclear fusion fireball in the sky, called the sun. Fossil fuels have distracted us from innovation based on solar energy which reaches earth every day. This source is 32 000 times more than the total energy we use. 

Many are currently doing good work in capturing more of that radiation via photosynthesis, hydrogen fuel cells etc. We’re wasting our resources in subsidising nuclear power when we have a free reactor out there in the universe.

In some respects fossil fuels are an energy source from the solar radiation of a few million years ago. Unfortunately every tonne of carbon we burn emits 3 tonnes of CO2 (based on molecular weight). And burning fossil fuels to produce heat or electrons is highly inefficient converting only 20% of the energy.

Reasons for (Not) Choosing Timber

So why would anyone commissioning new homes want to consider anything else given the climate emergency we face? Unfortunately, the industry suffers from misconceptions and a lethargy to change. The path to carbon zero must clear a few major barriers. These are some of them:

  • First, a home has become the most expensive asset anyone can hope to own. From nursery and kindergarten days we learned about how the three little pigs survived the wolf by building a house of bricks. Expressions such as “As safe as houses” convey the image of good solid building stock that won’t fall down.

    And yet we know that brick homes are known to sink, crack and are vulnerable to subsidence. Many believe it was the fire of London that put paid to wooden construction for good. And arguably we do have to treat closely packed homes made of timber for fire resistance, and current building codes insist on this.

    The number one question raised in Q&A with the public is how long such a wooden house will last. The implication is that timber homes are like sheds, temporary structures which you have to dispose of. The fact that nearly 70 percent of homes in Northern Europe (Austria, Germany, Scandinavia) and in North America are of timber construction and have lasted for decades is not something that people are aware of. Also many homes today in Britain have a timber core and are then clad in brick as a cosmetic overlay.

Resistance of Lenders

  • Second, with legacy construction materials owners know how to assess maintenance and repair costs. Surveyors know how to assess the risk of bricks and mortar. Lenders feel comfortable about extending loans to house buyers of traditional homes. No lender wants to have an unlimited loan book of low carbon homes with unquantified risks, even though the actual experience of similar homes elsewhere might be minimal.

Wood Construction Saves

  • Third, people don’t take into consideration the lifetime value of a home. No matter that a Ty Solar© home will save energy bills of tens of thousands of pounds over a typical period of occupancy or that it will save the planet millions of tons of carbon.

    The route to zero carbon does not emerge by purely taking into consideration short term capital cost of building a home. As long as the capital appreciation of homes outstrips all other asset classes, creating low carbon homes for some additional up-front costs will not be a priority.

Long Timeline for Learning

  • Fourth, the construction industry skills base and supply chains are rooted in bricks and mortar. It will take decades to retrain a new skills base of carpenters, solar installers, architects, civil engineers and planners.

Will Our Government Take Heed?

We hope that COP26 will initiate some urgency by the government to lay down enforcements for measurable change, setting hard targets on the road to zero.

In addition for the effective management of change there must be incentives through the housing grant and the development of new low carbon supply chains backed by re-skilled labour.