Design teams need the freedom to decide which material will give the best sustainability outcome


When I’m asked by journalists about the sustainability of one construction material over another my palms start to sweat and I begin emitting a quiet groaning noise. Not only is it a hugely complex issue (and there are people who are far more immersed in the detail than me) but inevitably it’s easy to get mired in vested interest. Sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees, so to speak.

So it was with huge interest and a certain amount of trepidation that I learned not only has Hackney recently became the first London local authority to adopt a ‘Wood First’ policy, but that a Defra commissioned Forestry Panel has recommended that all local authorities should “…use their Local Plans to introduce a “Wood First” policy for construction projects to increase use of wood in buildings…”

Over the last few days I’ve canvassed views of UK-GBC members on this, and it’s been a fascinating learning curve as it always is when I chuck these sorts of questions to a cross-section of our industry experts. We’re proud to have manufacturers and suppliers from all sectors as members, and count several trade associations as associate members. When you also throw in a huge number of consultants, designers and contractors you can guarantee an enthusiastic and knowledgeable response.

I actually think that the Wood for Good campaign’s demand for ‘Wood First’ policies is a little more nuanced than perhaps it has been given credit for. Their manifesto calls for ‘wood to be considered, where feasible, as the primary building material’. In a perverse way, the ‘Wood First’ campaign title may almost have been a little too successful. ‘Consider Wood Too’ may have been a bit more accurate, although admittedly much less catchy!

There is clearly a role for sustainable timber to play and it should absolutely be considered as an option. But many in the industry are very nervous about local authorities moving into design territory - and were the Forestry Panel’s recommendations to be carried out to the letter, this is exactly what would happen.

This has overtones of the ‘Merton Rule’ - well intended, but not well considered diktat. Sustainability impacts need to be considered in the round, including manufacture, projected life, potential for reuse, and end of life - with proper cradle to grave Life Cycle Assessment for the specifics of that project. Design teams need the freedom to examine all of those issues, before deciding if the optimum solution is timber, concrete, steel or a composite assembly. Councils should be targeting outcomes and letting the experts decide how to get there.

Worth noting perhaps that the Merton Rule itself was conceived not as an environmental policy per se, but as a policy to drive the roll-out of renewables - which often had unintended consequences on carbon reduction as a result. Let’s learn from that.

If we’re looking for the best sustainability outcomes, there will be different solutions for different challenges - and there should be opportunities for all materials sectors to play a part in providing the answer.

John Alker is director of policy and communication at UK-GBC