What if…London’s town centres were more sustainable?

Associate Director at Gardiner & Theobald Jessica Pennell, discusses how the use of mass timber could help address the UK’s climate emergency, helping to support a sustainable and polycentric London.

With increased opportunity for development in London’s suburban towns and the UK Government’s aim to become net zero by 2050, the industry has the chance to create smarter and more sustainable places to live. These future developments can consider embodied carbon, operational carbon and whole life carbon factors from the outset of construction projects to help work towards achieving net zero carbon.

As central London becomes more unaffordable and as the population continues to expand, many people and businesses are settling beyond the centre. But as we densify London’s outer town centres, how do we ensure they are more environmentally sustainable?

If London’s town centres are to become net zero, various aspects of the design of a building must be considered to reduce the carbon impacts. In this article we focus on one aspect of the net zero story – the building fabric and its impact on embodied carbon. Whilst the first consideration should be the re-use or refurbishment of existing buildings, as every new building will result in operational carbon and contain embodied carbon, this is often not feasible due to cost implications or programme constraints.

So why are we considering Mass Timber material solutions and how does this fit in to net zero aspirations when building a polycentric city? Policy and carbon taxes combined with client project sustainability goals are key drivers towards lower carbon solutions. As a result timber is being considered as a favourable solution to achieve lower embodied carbon and reduced carbon offset requirements in comparison to the more traditional concrete and steel frame options. Additionally, sustainably sourced timber solutions are the only truly renewable building material option.

Furthermore, following the global events of 2020, health and wellbeing factors have been put into sharp focus and studies have shown that a biophilic design can in fact improve occupants’ wellness. Exposed timber structural solutions as a natural material provide its users with a connectivity to nature, positively influencing their health and wellbeing. A critical component of successful densification.

For many years timber solutions have only been aspirational but with recent improvements in technology, offsite manufacturing and modern methods of construction, it is now becoming a more viable option. This is further supported by the development of hybrid options enabling teams to overcome some of the barriers to using timber.

There is of course the concern over fire spread within timber buildings, particularly where elements are exposed. However there is growing knowledge on the behaviour of timber structures in fires from research and testing which is informing fire engineering solutions. The insurance market is also engaged in the process, helping to work towards unlocking the market for insuring timber buildings both during and post construction.

It is not just the material that needs to be considered when creating a green and healthy building, but the end of life use of a building and the impact of the supply chain. Long-term holistic thinking that considers the impact projects will have on the environment from inception through to transportation is needed to create a truly sustainable environment.

Gardiner & Theobald’s ongoing Mass Office Timber Series brings together leading experts to discuss barriers to the take up of timber across the industry such as fire, sustainability, best practice, insurance and cost. We hope to unlock numerous timber construction solutions, enabling them to play a key role in achieving carbon reduction targets working towards net zero by 2050.

Will timber become the norm and future of buildings in the UK? That remains to be seen, but there will certainly need to be major changes to construction and the building industry to achieve net zero commitments. Perhaps the unfortunate events of 2020 provide an opportunity to consider new approaches to move towards a greener, more sustainable and inclusive built environment of the future.