The compelling benefits and challenges of timber construction
THE DOMESTIC building and construction sector in Australia’s largest cities continues to be in a boom phase, driven mostly by new apartment developments rather than traditional detached homes. Additionally, new housing is moving in towards city centres and development hubs.
Higher density housing represents a major transition in the way Australians live in cities, with potentially about one million new homes being added to the housing stock in the next three decades through urban renewal and infill in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alone.
One major trend observed in the current apartment boom is the growth of timber mid-rise buildings that are able to take advantage of timber’s dexterity as a building material as well as its strong environmental credentials. Whether it’s the natural aesthetic attributes, engineering properties, durability or carbon sequestering credentials, timber is gaining traction as the building material of the 21st century.
Timber is also a lighter material allowing ease of handling onsite – this is another compelling reason for choosing timber construction, especially in dense cities, where conditions are frequently restrained and space is limited. Timber can help manage a site better with less noise, mess and dust, and more safety. An important advantage of timber construction is that the building can be up in a matter of weeks.
But is the domestic timber products industry prepared to meet the demand? Though building and construction remain buoyant and timber demand is strong, the other side of the ledger shows domestic supply capacity flat-lining at best. Thankfully for the building and the construction sector, imported timber products are, and will continue to fill this widening demandsupply gap.
Without timber importers doing the heavy lifting, house construction targets would not have been achieved and the 26,000 imported timber product-linked jobs, estimated by the Housing Industry Association, and the construction and building sector would be under serious threat.
Another positive development is the initiative taken by Forest and
Wood Products Australia to have the National Construction Code (NCC) amended to allow timber buildings to push up to eight storeys or 25 metres. Though this will increase pressure on the supply side for the timber industry, it’s certainly a welcome development. Some mid-rise timber towers have already been erected, others are under construction and a good number are at the design stage.
Architects, developers, designers, engineers, and builders have welcomed changes to the NCC that apply to both traditional timber framing and innovative mass timber systems – such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), which comprises of multiple layers of wood glued together at right angles under high pressure to form the large wall, ceiling, and floor panels, and glulam, which is produced by laminating a number of smaller pieces of timber together to form a single large, strong, structural component. Used as vertical columns or horizontal beams, as well as curved, arched shapes, glulam is available in a range of species and appearance characteristics.
The NCC changes will allow architects to explore and demonstrate the potential of engineered timber, while also increasing the use of traditional timber framing. Ultimately, the code change will mean quicker, more cost effective and environmentally-friendlier construction of residential apartments, office blocks and hotel buildings.
However, cross laminated timber, glulam, prefabricated flooring and other advanced engineered timber products that allow the industry to take advantage of the mid-rise building code amendments are not manufactured in Australia. They are imported by Australian Timber Importers Federation members. There’s no doubt timber product importers are making a major contribution to the building and construction sector, and to the timber product supply chain. Timber imports will continue to drive the availability of sophisticated engineered wood products that will facilitate both the predicted strengthening of the residential new housing market and the momentum of mid-rise building construction.
Australia’s first CLT manufacturing plant will be operational this year and is expected to be one of the most technologically advanced plants worldwide. For the first time, projects will be able to use a CLT product that is designed and made in Australia from Australian timber.
International House, Sydney. Photo: Lend Lease
Interior mid-rise CLT constructed apartment. Photo: Christoph Kulterer, proHolz Austria