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Construction Corner: Research continues to think big and build tall with timber

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Research continues to think big and build tall with timber

Last week, when I began this discussion about wood in construction, I concluded by quoting a Swiss scientist named Martin Riediker, as saying that “wood has to reinvent itself.”

He wasn’t talking about such things as cross-laminated timber. He was talking about more. Much more.

Riediker is president of the steering committee of something called NRP 66. That’s the name the Swiss have attached to the national research program called Resource Wood. It’s a program that is nearing the end of its five-year life and in that time, it was probably the most intensive, innovative wood research program I have ever run across.

The projects of NRP 66 covered the whole spectrum from basic research to application. For example, a scientist at ETH Zurich has succeeded in inserting a polymer into the cellular walls of wood to make it more water repellent and stable for use as a building material.

From that, there emerged a start-up called Swiss Wood Solutions aimed at marketing new wood-based materials.

Another team has improved the manufacturing processes for layered boards in which a plastic foam is enclosed by two wooden panels. It is the type of board that is commonly used in prefabricated flat-pack furniture.

Another team has developed a lightweight wood-concrete by partially replacing sand with sawdust.

Some of the work done under the NRP 66 umbrella has nothing to do with construction. It is, however extremely interesting.

For example, researchers succeeded in improving the fermentation processes of beech wood for the production of ethanol, a commonly used fuel. Another scientist developed an IT tool to establish the best layout for a bio-refinery.

Yet another scientist was able to optimize the use of wood in the production of biogas.

But the bulk of the work done under NRP 66 dealt with wood for use in construction.

“Exploiting forests makes sense in terms of ecology and biodiversity as it can stabilize carbon dioxide emissions for decades and diminish the greenhouse effect,” Riediker says. “We have a very emotional, even intimate, relationship with wood. It is the material of which old furniture and the chalets of our childhood are made. But we can do even more. There is a lot of know-how in the areas of construction and innovation in Switzerland.”

Active as the Swiss are in the area of wood research, they are not alone.

Halfway around the world, something called the Future Timber Hub has been founded in Australia. It aims to drive the future development of tall timber buildings and hopes to transform the timber construction industry in Australia by generating the skills, knowledge and resources that may overcome the barriers sometimes encountered when suggesting timber for tall structures.

The hub was founded as an interdisciplinary partnership and involves government agencies and a number of universities. Among those schools is the University of British Columbia and the University of Canterbury in England. It also includes Arup, the big British design multinational.

The projects the hub have planned will advance tall timber construction a number of levels. Projects include the development of engineered wood products (EWPs) appropriate in the Australian context. It will also develop hybrid construction systems involving concrete and timber, and the development of prefabricated EWP construction systems.

The organizers of the Future Timber Hub believe that EWPs provide the best potential means of minimizing the impact of the construction sector on the natural environment and reducing resource consumption.

It is felt that EWPs go beyond most renewable building materials due to their extremely high net negative carbon footprint, their ability to sequester carbon dioxide in their natural insulating properties.

They also could promote the development of sustainably managed tree plantations to provide the wood.

Now that regulatory authorities in many countries have done their work, building tall with timber seems poised to enter the mainstream.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

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