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Revised 9 May 2001

Timber as Sustainable Building Material

Oil, fossil fuels and minerals take millenia to produce and so they and their products are not renewable resources and continuous use is not sustainable.
It takes only 50 years or so to grow a tree.

The only material which is sustainable, structural, and beautifully adaptable to so many building requirements, is timber:

Timber use and the Global Environment

More extensive use of timber tends to lead to more extensive forestry and reduces atmospheric carbon-dioxide in four ways;
The only material which can be burnt as fuel and help reduce CO2 levels is wood;

Wood burnt as fuel releases CO2 into the atmosphere but can still help reduce CO2 levels. This is because use entails increased reserves - the log pile at the simplest level, and also increased reserves of living trees, both of which are additional reservoirs of carbon which would otherwise be in the atmosphere as CO2.
There are new developments afoot in Wood-as-Fuel in the form of chips, pellets, oil and gas extraction, which are usable in larger hi-tech high-efficiency heating plants. This could be linked to coppicing for a sustainable supply.
More use as fuel also means less use of unsustainable fossil fuels, the use of which introduces extra CO2 into the atmosphere.


It is easy to assume that de-forestation is a result of excessive demand for timber but in fact the opposite is more often the case.
Forest is cleared by those who do not value it and this has been happening for thousands of years. The main agent of de-forestation is and always has been farming, not forestry.

The well-publicised activity of timber extractors in tropical areas, often reckless or illegal, is distinct from those who merely wish to clear woodland by cutting and burning. Given political and economic stability then an extractor will become a conserver - for the sake of continuous supplies.

Where timber is valued it is conserved and supplies only run down in difficult times, e.g. ship building during the Napoleonic Wars led to reduction in timber supplies in spite of long-term planning and conservation measures undertaken by the Navy in earlier years.
Forest management and conservation are long established practices - see 'The History of the Countryside' by Oliver Rackham.
William Cobbett, in 'Rural Rides', comments often on the extent and variety of woodland in England in the early 19th century. Demand for timber was very high at this time and the abundance of woodland was due largely to traditional conservation practices.
19th century visitors to Ireland comment on the absence of trees and the bare landscape. This was due to English exploitation of the Irish forests since even before the sudden demand caused by the Great Fire of London when much rebuilding was with Irish timber. English owners of Irish land were not interested to forestry except as a short term cash source. It was often sold cheaply and there was little local demand. In earlier centuries Ireland had been known for its ancient forests but sheep, cattle and corn were more profitable and the old forests were cover for not only wolves but also the dispossessed Irish.

Tis cause enough for grieving,
Our shelter felled around us...
What shall we do for timber?
The last of the woods is down...
There's no holly nor hazel nor ash there,
The pasture's rock and stone,
The crown of the forest has withered,
And the last of the game is gone.

'Lament for the Woodlands' (Anon) from 'Lords and Commons' (Cuala Press, Dublin 1938), Frank O'Connor

Timber Use and the Built Environment

bungalowThe arguments for greater use of wood are substantial - it is fortunate that it is such a pleasant material to live with.
Some regions have local styles of timber building but most examples have a plain utilitarian appearance which looks appropriate almost anywhere in the world, such as this example which happens to be in the Lake District.

Timber building in conservation areas

Planning authorities would be unlikely to permit this as a new building, especially not in a conservation area. The question is; which would you rather see on this site - this simple wooden building with a cheap corrugated-iron roof, or another example of the dreary fake-vernacular so favoured by planners?
The qualities which we want to conserve or emulate in the built environment are much more complicated than mere 'vernacular detail' and less constraint and more encouragement of imaginative building design could be a benefit. More use of timber could be part of the answer - plain and simple buildings which would not look out of place anywhere, and the same time benefit the world environment - as detailed above.
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