Article - Into the woods |
Decarbonizing construction

Into the Woods: construction’s path to a sustainable future

Contact image written by Patrick Gower, Content Creator written by Patrick Gower, Content Creator

Timber currently constitutes just 3 percent of the total materials used in European construction, making it a niche practice. The European Commission has much bigger ambitions.

“By keeping carbon inside wood, one day timber could turn our homes and even entire cities into carbon sinks,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during an event on November 24, 2022. “We all know that building with timber could save up to 40 percent of carbon emissions compared to concrete. That’s a huge figure.”


Von der Leyen was speaking at the ‘Into the Woods’ New European Bauhaus event organized by the Government of Finland in collaboration with the European Commission and the governments of Estonia and Sweden. The gathering brought together leaders in government and industry to discuss how forests can provide inspiration and material for sustainable construction while fostering biodiversity and carbon sinks.


“We must find alternatives to emission-intensive materials in the construction sector,” said Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland. “We have already taken many steps when it comes to energy efficiency, and we need to take steps towards material efficiency… we know that wood and bio-based materials can offer great opportunities for decarbonizing our building stock.”


Use of timber in construction may be small relative to more carbon-intensive materials, but it is growing rapidly. The European market for cross-laminated timber – one of the most popular wood-based construction materials –  reached a volume of 1.4 million cubic meters (nearly 50 million cubic feet) in 2021, according to market research group IMARC. That’s likely to hit 2.6 million cubic meters by 2027, a compound annual growth rate of 11.3 percent, the company estimates.


Timber’s sustainability credentials are a primary driver of growth, but it’s also cost-effective, flexible, aesthetically pleasing and can speed up the pace of construction. Mass timber requires less labor, equipment and tools on site. Instead, wood can be detailed, designed and prefabricated in an offsite shop, so when it’s delivered to the site, workers simply link the pieces together.


Skanska is carrying out an 860,000 square foot (80,000 square meter) modernization of Portland International Airport in the USA. To ensure sufficient capacity for future passenger demand, the project included the expansion of the terminal and implementation a new roof structure that utilized mass plywood panels, a new product. The finished 9-acre (36,000 square meter) roof comprised of 80-inch (203 centimeter) curved glued-laminated timber – or glulam – beams that were pieced together onsite and lifted into position.


During the ‘Into the Woods’ event, Lena Hök, EVP Sustainability & Innovation at Skanska, participated in a panel discussion on the outlook for sustainable construction alongside panel members that included Maria Ohisalo, Finland’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, and Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment.


The panel were quizzed on issues spanning materials, skills and what it might take to enable a faster reduction in carbon emissions from the construction sector. Event moderator Matti Kuittinen, Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of the Environment of Finland, asked Hök to outline what would be necessary to ensure sustainable construction techniques can be implemented affordably across Europe.


“We need to have sustainability as a core part of the economic dimension – that’s what is needed in order to scale innovative and sustainable solutions,” Hök said. “We already have many of the necessary innovations today, but we need to attach them to the business case so they become the economic reality.”


The technology to pave roads with near-zero emission asphalt already exists, for example. However, most roads are procured by the public sector, so it would require national and municipal governments to ensure it is the first choice, Hök said.


A successful transition to a more sustainable industry will require a significant increase in training. Almost 35 percent of European Union construction firms report that they are struggling to find skilled workers, von der Leyen said in her speech. As a result, the EU has proposed making 2023 the European Year of Skills. Von der Leyen announced the creation of a new European Bauhaus Academy that would “reskill” and “upskill” 3 million construction workers during the next five years.


“There will not be a green transformation if we don't have the skills, if we don’t have the people to drive the transformation,” she added


Moderator Kuittinen asked Hök to specify which kind of skilled workers were most in need.

“I was visiting a construction site yesterday and it’s now so important to truly understand and assess carbon emissions throughout the life cycle of a building,” she responded. “It’s a whole new field – actually how you accurately compare various solutions and be fair about the choices you make when it comes to carbon and carbon calculations.”


The push to place greater emphasis on emissions produced during the life cycles of buildings – the production of materials, construction, their operation and eventual disposal – will be a significant driver in the adoption of timber in construction.


At current rates of adoption, it will take some time before most of our homes or entire cities are timber carbon sinks, as Von der Leyen hopes, but she insists it’s possible.


“To some of you, this might sound like a dream, but in Finland as well as in Estonia and Sweden, you are showing Europe already how this works, how this is possible and doable,” she said during her speech. “You have centuries of experience in building out of wood and we need your experience now more than ever to encourage sustainable forestry and lead the next revolution in architecture.”