View­points: Is it Time we Stopped Burn­ing Wood in our Homes?

With Lon­don mayor Sadiq Khan urg­ing the gov­ern­ment to in­tro­duce a ban on wood­burn­ing stoves, we asked two ex­perts to pro­vide their thoughts on the vi­a­bil­ity of this pop­u­lar home choice

Homebuilding & Renovating - - Contents -

Are wood­burn­ing stoves as ‘green’ as some pro­claim them to be? Two ex­perts share their opin­ions on the topic

back the ban Rather than burn­ing our wood, we should be build­ing with it, lock­ing away the car­bon in­stead of re­leas­ing it into the at­mos­phere, says ar­chi­tect Paul Testa

Let me first make it clear that I love a fire; don’t we all? There’s some­thing about sit­ting in front of a real flame that con­nects us with our hunter-gath­erer selves. It’s pri­mal and bril­liant. But we’re not cave­men or women any­more; so why, af­ter the ad­vent of cen­tral heat­ing and in­su­lated homes, do we still burn wood for heat? Fash­ion def­i­nitely has a role to play. The wood­burn­ing stove has be­come one of the must-haves of this gen­er­a­tion. The rea­sons for this are laud­able: it’s sus­tain­able and cuts en­ergy costs. But how sus­tain­able is it?

The Sus­tain­abil­ity Ar­gu­ment

Trees take a rel­a­tively long time to grow, slowly ab­sorb­ing at­mo­spheric car­bon and stor­ing it in their tim­ber. We can then choose to do lots of things with those trees: leave them to grow and con­tinue to ab­sorb car­bon; make things like fur­ni­ture and build­ings, re­tain­ing that car­bon stor­age for tens if not hun­dreds of years; chop them down and leave them to rot, re­leas­ing the car­bon over many years; or burn them for heat and/or power, re­leas­ing the car­bon al­most in­stan­ta­neously back into the at­mos­phere.

This would be bet­ter if we were us­ing tim­ber that was al­ready a waste prod­uct or from a fast-grow­ing lo­cal source. But most peo­ple don’t live next to a sawmill or have trees that they can cop­pice in their back gar­dens, and wind­fall branches in lo­cal woods only pro­vide for so long.

Grow­ing tim­ber and hav­ing a mar­ket for sus­tain­able forestry is good, but let’s lock as much of that car­bon away for as long as pos­si­ble — let’s build our homes out of it rather than burn it.

Air Qual­ity

And what about the im­pact on air qual­ity? What about the mi­cro­scopic par­tic­u­lates that get pro­duced by the burn­ing of wood that find their way into the air we breathe and into our lungs? Since the Clean Air Act in 1952 things have im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly. Wood­burn­ing stoves burn much hot­ter and more ef­fi­ciently than open fires, re­duc­ing the par­tic­u­late mat­ter but not elim­i­nat­ing the prob­lem. How­ever, with the in­creased up­take of solid fuel stoves they are start­ing to have a sig­nif­i­cant and iden­ti­fi­able im­pact on air qual­ity in our cities.

Air qual­ity is of­ten at its worst in cold con­di­tions. The colder east­erly winds in win­ter are of­ten car­ry­ing par­tic­u­lates from con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Colder con­di­tions are also more likely to in­duce tem­per­a­ture in­ver­sions, hold­ing the poor air close to the ground rather than it ris­ing to higher al­ti­tudes. These are the ex­act con­di­tions when stove use is most intense, cre­at­ing a per­fect storm of ter­ri­ble air qual­ity and poor health in our cities.

Cur­rent UK ad­vice in pe­ri­ods of ex­tremely poor air qual­ity is to avoid stren­u­ous ex­er­cise. This is no so­lu­tion at all and com­pletely fails to ac­knowl­edge the causes of the is­sue, and why mea­sures to curb stove use should be wel­comed.

Ob­vi­ously stoves are not the only cul­prit and re­stric­tions should be part of a more com­pre­hen­sive pack­age of mea­sures, in­clud­ing plans to re­duce ve­hi­cle emis­sions (some­thing which there is still a dis­tinct lack of po­lit­i­cal will to achieve), and to in­crease cy­cling and walk­ing. Put sim­ply, we shouldn’t be burn­ing wood for heat — and a ban on wood­burn­ing stoves seems a use­ful place to start.

“Wood­burn­ing stoves are start­ing to have a sig­nif­i­cant and iden­ti­fi­able im­pact on air qual­ity in our cities”

Paul Testa Paul Testa is an ar­chi­tect and univer­sity lec­turer. He is an advocate of low en­ergy de­sign and the Pas­sivhaus stan­dard.

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