Mark Keenan: Why wood and thatch are the future of sustainable and affordable home construction

We can blame the three little pigs for our fear of wood and straw as building materials.

Fear of fire and moisture. And the fact that Irish builders have always tended to be super practical and ultra conservative.

As toddlers and midgets, we were imbued throughout our lives with the popular fable of the juvenile pigs sent into the world by their mother; go out and build their own houses.

Fifer builds a house out of straw. The Big Bad Wolf (BBW) enters the scene. The pig refuses to let him in (by the hair on his chin). BBW puffs and blows and blows down the house. He eats the unfortunate pig. Fiddler builds his house out of sticks and the wolf does the same.

Practical pig (every family has one) wears the denim dungarees. He builds his house out of cement and bricks. So BBW puffs and puffs but gets nowhere. Practically doubles as the wolf tries to get down the chimney, only to fall into a cauldron of boiling water that the pig is bubbling in the hearth in an attempt to catch it.

As a sprat, I wondered if the proud alpha pig wasn’t a little off the rails on that last page. Who could cook someone alive after eating their siblings and still turn up smiling?

Brick, cement, concrete and steel together have been the way of building for over a century. Concrete has been with us since the Romans. Today, only water is used by mankind more than concrete, and much of that water is used to make concrete.

But with the recent revelations that global warming is happening much faster than we thought, it could be that Practical Pig was wrong all along and that the future of construction may indeed lie in wood and straw.

Concrete is a fabulous invention. A liquid that can be molded into any shape and hardens to a waterproof and rocky consistency. With a steel backbone, it has been lured half a kilometer into the air and 85 stories up (China’s Dongguan International Trade Center T2, completed last September, is the world’s new tallest building).

China poured more concrete in 2011-2013 than the US did in the entire 20th century. And right after fossil fuels and agriculture, concrete and steel are coming onto the planet, killing carbon inputs.

Concrete and steel production each contribute 8 percent to total global emissions.

Luckily we have Norwegians who point the way to a solution: do away with concrete and steel altogether and replace them with wood.

The tallest wooden skyscraper in the world is Mjösa Tower in Brumunddal, completed in 2019, which is 18 stories high and houses apartments, offices and a hotel inside. It is built from Cross Laminated Timber (CLT).

This is factory made from panels of wood, usually pine or spruce, that are stacked in layers and glued together with a non-toxic glue. For strength, each layer is stacked at right angles to the one below. The product is then pressed by machine. It can easily be cut into any shape, hence windows, doors, etc. They call the buildings “plyscrapers”.

While Scandinavians have always been the practical pigs of the world when it comes to finding new ways to save the planet, they also have very good reason to be fearless when it comes to building big with wood.

In Norway there are many examples of 400 and 500 year old two and three storey log houses that are now inhabited and in perfect condition. In a country with extreme weather, they survived without paint or sealing. And despite 350 years of candle and whale oil lamp lighting, they have not burned down.

Fire and damp are the Irish Practical Pig’s great fears when it comes to living in timber houses, and particularly timber tower blocks.

But just like Norway’s village houses that are half a millennium old, the new plyscrapters have proven fireproof and moisture-proof. The compressed wood is more prone to charring than burning, and the charring in turn protects the inner wood.

Architects from Cambridge University and the private practice PLP Architects have designed a 300 meter high all-timber tower for The Barbican in London.

When built it will be the tallest plyscraper in the world and the second tallest building in London after the Shard (you could call it the Splinter?).

But for practical proportions (especially when it comes to Irish cities) check out Dalston Lane in Hackney.

Built in 2017, the wooden building has 10 floors, with only the ground floor and first floor featuring traditional materials. Designed by Waugh Thistelton Architects, it has 121 apartments, as well as offices, a restaurant and a gym.

It was manufactured (in this case in Austria) and arrived on trucks as a giant flat pack.

Plyscrapers are much quicker to set up (one floor per week) and much quieter to build (they bolt together). The number of truck deliveries on site is radically reduced.

The buildings are no less strong, but many times lighter. The material has almost no carbon footprint, so it eliminates the damage caused by concrete and steel. But there’s also the dual benefit of trapping plenty of carbon sucked in from the trees that make it up.

And if Irish builders need proof of CLT’s longevity, we look to Hackney’s 2009-completed CLT block in Murray Grove (29 dwellings). It shows no signs of wear or warping after 13 years of exposure to the elements.

While wood is in short supply at the moment (everything related to building is in short supply at the moment), this is only a temporary problem. Europe’s sustainable forest grows so much every year that enough wood grows back every seven seconds to build a four-bed house.

So what about the straw? For single-family houses, straw bale construction (plastered inside and out) is immensely cheap and practical and massively insulating.

It has already proven itself (see 25 years of Channel 4 Great designs), but it is not popular with local government planning officials.

Its high-tech big brother is Hempcrete – a blend of lime and hemp fibers processed into blocks supported on wooden frames. It is widespread in France and Canada and becoming mainstream in the UK. But hemp is a low-rise material. Block hemp is useless to get high.

Irish builders are notoriously slow to adapt to new technology. They trailed their heels on wooden frames for decades, and then with kit construction.

But with new data showing the planet being destroyed more quickly, surely emissions regulations will now be applied to commercial construction in the same way that plastic taxes and carbon penalties are slapped on other sectors?

Two years ago, Emmanuel Macron, Leo Varadkar’s best friend, set an example when he ordered all state buildings in France to be at least 50 percent wood.

The government here is already cajoling / bullying ordinary homeowners into doing their part through hugely expensive home upgrades backed by government grants. Non-participants will be subject to penalty tax.

So how about applying the same carrot-and-coal approach to the big developers and the international funds that are now pounding out huge, planet-destroying blocks of concrete and steel at record speed?

CSO data shows that 70 per cent of new homes completed in Dublin since the beginning of this year have been apartments (heavy steel and concrete).

So while our neighbors innovate to reduce CO2, our own concrete carbon footprint continues to grow.

With wood technology now proven, the planet clock ticking and the way open for big CLT buildings, our government will now use just as much force to force their best friends into the big fund, their contribution to the planet as well afford to?

Some incentives/penalties to get them out of the cinder blocks, so to speak?

Somehow, if I were you, I wouldn’t hold back your huff and puff. Mark Keenan: Why wood and thatch are the future of sustainable and affordable home construction

Fry Electronics Team

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