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The Materials Shift, choose life in the Timber Age

“We often refer to human civilisations by the principal materials they employ, such as the Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. In this vein, the 20th century can be very much called the Concrete Age and it seems very likely that the 21st century will be the Timber Age”
Waugh Thistleton Architects 100 Hundred projects UK CLT (2018)

Despite the far-reaching negative health impacts that exist as a result of the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation and use of building materials for our shopping centres – centres continue to be designed and built using low-cost, environmentally harmful materials, fuelling an unhealthy materials economy to grow – while also leaving a devastating trail of destruction in its wake.

The building materials landscape is difficult for many clients, designers and consultants to navigate due to the vast array of conflicting and often confusing environmental certifications assigned to the products being specified on projects such as: environmental product declarations (EPD), good environmental choice accreditation (GECA), Greentag, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Australian Forestry Standard (AFS), Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC), Australasian Furnishing Research & Development Institute (AFRDI), Carpet Institute of Australia Limited (CIAL), Greenguard Certified, ISO 14001, ISO 9001, Blue Angel Certification, Fairtrade, Smart Approved Watermark, Water Efficiency Labelling (WELS), Windows Energy Rating Scheme (WERS), Smart Certified (SMaRT), Cradle to Cradle (C2C) and Declare.

There are literally hundreds of ecolabels globally. Some consider the whole life of a building product, others assess products on a pass or fail basis, some look at recycled content whilst others use life cycle analysis.

Yes – all of these are environmental certifications – yet they all measure and certify slightly different aspects relating to sustainability. It appears to be a minefield, but is it really?

Award-winning Westpoint Shopping Centre amenities
Photographer Esteban La Tessa

A dear friend once told me that ‘every time you purchase something you are making a choice about the way you want the world to be. If I was to translate this into our existing materials marketplace and purchasing choices – I would concur that our future is looking pretty grim. Unbeknownst to many is that so many materials currently used in the products we purchase every day cause chronic illness, environmental devastation and species extinction.

In order to make the informed decision around what to specify for projects, designers need transparency. Only one certification enforces full ‘Product ingredient disclosure and transparency’ and that is the ‘Declare’ certification.

Designers need to know where the product comes from, what’s in it and, if it contains harmful chemicals, how it was extracted and processed and where it will go at its end of life. If a question doesn’t have an answer, then it probably needs asking. This is by no stretch a quick and easy process, but like-minded organisations are coming together as members of the Living Future Institute Australia and uniting in asking manufacturers the difficult questions and driving manufacturers to produce products that both preserve and protect our environment and don’t negatively impact human health – one product, one phone call at a time.

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has a comprehensive list of harmful chemicals called the ‘Red List’. It is made up of chemicals that have been found to threaten human health and wellbeing and should not be included in buildings attempting to meet materials criteria of ILFI’s Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification process. The Red List encompasses established chemical regulatory lists such as RoHS, REACH, Pharos, Healthy Product Declaration, Green Ideas Green Action, Building Green and Declare. The international Declare database is open and free for all to use.

The aim of the Living Building Challenge ‘materials petal’ is to promote a materials economy that is non-toxic, ecologically restorative, transparent and socially equitable. By selecting Red List compliant/Declare certified products, designers are making a statement about the kind of future they want for their businesses, employees, families and future generations and that future is a thriving, fair, healthy world for all.

While Declare is still in its infancy here in Australia, it is growing and will have a positive ripple effect on our construction manufacturing and supplier industry.

Award-winning Westpoint Shopping Centre amenities Photographer Esteban La Tessa

As a rule of thumb, a deliberate move away from carbon intensive, environmentally harmful materials such as steel and concrete would be a step in the right direction. With the recent boom in Cross Laminated Timber here in Australia, we have other viable options, so long as we know where the timber comes from and that there is an ethical supply chain.

Timber acts as a Carbon store and as a result is a great substitute for Steel and Concrete.

“Growing trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon so efficiently that about half the dry weight of wood is carbon. This carbon remains locked up for the life of the wood even when we use it for building products or furniture. It is only released when the wood is burnt or rots – and wood stored in landfill under anaerobic (lack of oxygen) conditions can last for hundreds if not thousands of years.” (Naturally Better)

In addition to the carbon storage benefits, wood production requires less energy compared with other building products. According to Wood Solutions as a rule of thumb if you convert one cubic metre of concrete for a cubic metre of timber, you will eliminate approximately one metric tonne (1000kg) of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere.

Recycled or rescued timber products should always be considered first, not only for the environmental reasons but also because the weathered and repurposed timber can impart a real sense of character into design. The irregular variation that can be created by random mixtures of species can really bring designs to life. Rescued timber can also be used to evoke interior warmth and comfort while remaining modern.

Marks & Spencer’s in Chester UK opted for timber not only for its sustainable qualities but also because it was able to express the structure and honesty of the building and reduce unnecessary finishes, which increase cost and energy maintenance demands in the future.

All timber within the store was FSC certified and some interior furniture was recycled oak from the site clearance. The external walls of the store consist of prefabricated timber-framed panels with a lime-based insulating material and a hemp and flax fibre insulating quilt, to achieve a breathable wall with a U value of 0.12W/m2K. The panels, together with recycled glass wool insulation within the roof, help to regulate the internal temperature.


About the author

Claire Bowles

Claire Bowles joined i2C as their Sustainability Lead in 2018 to establish their core sustainability principles and goals. As a Regenerative practionner and accredited Green Star professional, Claire works closely with clients on their purposeful objectives for projects to achieve positive outcomes. Her Master’s degree in Strategic Project Management, experience as a construction improvement consultant in the UK gives Claire a broad base from which to bring stakeholders together and drive innovative thinking around regenerative and living systems design. She is passionate about approaching our built environment as an opportunity to create positive buildings and places that act as educational, inspiring acupuncture points for a new way of living, being and working. She is a firm believer that we can all contribute and have a positive impact on our communities, society and wider natural environments.

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