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Is ‘Wood First’ sound policy?

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A UK-GBC debate unpicks Hackney Council’s controversial proposed planning policy

‘Wood First’, a UK-GBC member-only event earlier this week aired different views on Hackney Council’s sustainable materials policy, currently out for consultation. Plaudits to the UK-GBC for tackling a timely subject and trying to elevate the debate above rants from different trade associations.

The issue is as follows: Hackney Council is considering supplementary planning guidance with a presumption in favour of sustainable materials, described in this statement issued by the Council last year:

‘Although the Council is keen to promote the benefits of building with wood, it is not considering a policy that would exclude locally sourced building materials or prevent the use of other sustainable building materials in future developments. However, it will take into account the carbon footprint of a new development to ensure it is in line with its sustainability policy and the use of structural timber would help to contribute to this (28 May 2012)

However, there has been some confusion as to the adoption of this policy. A spokesperson from the council today (25.01.13) confirmed to AJ Footprint that they are ‘not developing a Wood First Policy’. The emerging policy does not favour one construction material over another. 

Their statement went on to say:

‘Policy DM1 of the draft Development Management Local Plan states that the Council will require all developments to be of high quality & in particular, use high quality durable materials & incorporate sustainable design and construction measures and materials, demonstrating how sustainable development principles and resilient measures to climate change have been incorporated.

The Council intends to develop a best practice Guide in the medium term that will assist developers to maximise carbon reduction in design of their proposals. We will seek input from the concrete, steel, and wood industry to inform the document.

A cross-industry group of approximately 65 people gathered to hear the debate, including representatives from Black Architecture, David Morley Architects, Hawkins Brown, HTA and Nicholas Hare Architects. Chaired by the UK-GBC‘s John Alker, the panel included:

After brief presentations by each speaker, a number of issues and opposing views were raised.

Andrew Carpenter believes the policy will raise the awareness and profile of timber but reiterated the importance of getting the fabric first message across first, over wood (or any other material) to avoid eco-bling. Clearly this is key. Projects must be assessed individually because ‘one size does not fit all’. Many delegates agreed that solutions are usually a hybrid.

Commenting on the debate, Paul Hinkin of Black Architecture was spot on. He said ‘the construction industry must realise that what is required is simple transparent information that designers and their clients can use to make informed decisions.’

This view was echoed by Rory Bergin, Head of Sustainability & Innovation at HTA, who added: ‘There was a disappointing amount of disagreement about the benefits of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs); in fact there seemed to be a lack of understanding about their potential to provide good data that designers can use to compare products on a like-for-like basis. EPDs will allow comparisons if applied intelligently.’

Common metrics cloud the timber/no timber debate. How carbon is accounted for is variable and can be biased if not sourced responsibly. Lifetime assessments, whole-life carbon and carbon sequestration should be the basis for policy but national and European standards are not yet harmonised.

WRAP in association with UK-GBC are working with Arup to create a public database of embodied carbon for whole buildings to address this issue of comparable transparent data and benchmarking. The Construction Products Association has also begun collating information to align manufacturers’ varying commitments and sustainability targets. However, it is far from producing comparable data which is ready to share. It is early days for both of these initiatives, but these are important steps in the right direction.

Facit Homes Harptree Micro Hotel

Facit Homes, Harptree Micro Hotel

The implications of legislation were raised by Peter Fisher of Bennetts Associates who noted that prescriptive regulatory legislation can be detrimental. The role of planners and their ability to assess these complex issues was challenged; another example is the requirement for on-site renewables regardless of context, highlighting concerns of inequalities in disciplines.

David Hopkins argued that prescriptive legislation is better than no legislation for companies who fail to have a sustainability policy in place, if only for raising awareness.

Bergin noted the benefits of wood in terms of customer appeal: ‘A natural material speaks to us about the natural forces that made it.’ He went on to ask: ‘Will our descendants really want the buildings we are leaving for them? I’m not particularly grateful for my leaky, draughty, crumbling Victorian house. Give me a high quality envelope any day!’ 

It’s fantastic that the UK-GBC is encouraging debate about the relative merits of various construction methods and materials. Annette Forster of brick manufacturer Wienerberger observed that ‘masonry was under-represented in this particular panel, which skewed the parameters of the discussion.’ Hinkin believes that ‘Wood First is nothing more than a timber marketing ploy and must not be allowed to get in the way of the UK developing indigenous, modern timber architecture.’ Rather than arguing which material should be prioritised, the industry should work together to create and promote the development of transparent data that is beneficial to all. 

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