Wood has gotten a bad reputation as an unsustainable building material. Wood, especially the wood harvested from virgin forests, can have a higher environmental impact. It is also thought to be less durable, meaning it will need more repair and replacing over its lifetime.
Contrary to popular belief, wood can be a very sustainable building material. So much so, that some are looking at building whole cities from timber and the research is showing promise.
What are Timber Cities?
Timber Cities are a new form of urban and suburban development that relies on sustainable materials like timber to build homes and other structures. The idea is to create dense, mixed-use, walkable, and sustainable communities that are more affordable and environmentally friendly than traditional suburban sprawl.
The timber concept is a grassroots movement originating in the late 1990s that has gained significant traction internationally in the last few years.
Timber cities go beyond just building using wood. The wood has to come from somewhere and building using wood from virgin forests is obviously not a good idea.
Most plans for timber cities also include plans for timber plantations, timber processing, and transportation networks. A top goal is to get the wood from sustainable sources and not encouraging logging for timber in pristine forests and biodiversity conservation areas.
According to the research initiative timber city, timber cities could encourage “a closer, healthier, and more sustainable relationship between the city and the forest.”
The Benefits of Building with Wood
Timber is a renewable resource that can be harvested and replanted. Wood is environmentally friendly as it has the lowest carbon footprint out of any building material. That’s because tree growth absorbs the CO2 emitted and you won’t feel its implications until the timber inevitably gets destroyed.
A timber city is essentially a big carbon sink. The carbon is absorbed by the trees while it is growing and isn’t released into the environment unless the wood is burned.
Timber buildings are more eco-friendly than steel or concrete buildings. Steel and concrete are two of the most carbon intensive building materials. The production of steel requires an enormous amount of energy, while the production of concrete is often very costly in terms of its carbon footprint.
Wood is also very appealing and can create urban environments that bring in the outside world, which has been proven to reduce mental health issue and improve lives.
Timber Cities Could Help Avoid 100 billion tons of carbon emissions
A study done by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows housing more people in Timber Cities could help avoid 100 billion tons of carbon emissions by 2100. These 100 billion tons represents a savings of around 10 percent of the carbon budget set to keep the global temperature increase to 2 C or less.
The researchers also studied the consequences of the creation of the timber plantations needed to satisfy the demand. “Our simulation shows that sufficient wood for new mid-rise urban buildings can be produced without major repercussion on food production,” scientist Florian Humpenöder, co-author of the study, explained to Science Daily.
The study authors know that we need the land that is currently being used to grow food to keep growing food. We can’t suddenly have the land all convert to growing timber. The study authors conclude that around 140 million hectares of need timber plantations are needed to meet the demand and reduce the carbon emissions by 100 billion tons.
There are still some that are skeptical about the validity of converting rural land into tree plantations to meet the need for a city built from wood. As this study was the first to look at the impact to the environment of the tree plantations needed and the storage of the carbon in the wood products harvested, much more research is needed.