The Timber Project

Tunisha Mehta, Ankur Podder

Status: Ongoing

Addressing multidimensional challenges across six building life-cycle phases of wood in Global South to expand its value-proposition beyond sustainability

Addressing multidimensional challenges across six building life-cycle phases of wood in Global South to expand its value-proposition beyond sustainability

Wood as Primary Building Material in Global South:
Rethinking Life-Cycle Challenges

Wood's low embodied environmental impact over a building life-cycle in the wake of climate change is conducive to its rising popularity as a primary building material for construction. However, we still do not witness timber buildings in every corner of our built world. While the most significant timber-producing countries such as the US, Canada and Sweden attribute a majority of their yield to construction market demand, the Global South remains regressed. Past studies have identified three unrelenting hindrances in such unconventional markets: culture & economy, climate & geography, and skilled labour & technical expertise. With an ever-increasing 85% of the world's population living in the Global South to this day, we cannot disregard the limitations to the adoption of wood as a primary building material in this region. 

As representatives from the Global South, we propose to rethink the challenges above by assessing the life-cycle of wood as a primary building material. Starting from sourcing wood from managed forests to the end-of-life stage of deconstruction, we enlighten the reader through our snapshot narrative how these challenges recur across six life-cycle phases of a typical wood building. For the resource extraction phase, countries such as India, China, Mexico and Argentina have vast agricultural lands as opposed to managed forests leading to dwindled timber production. India’s major forest cover is regarded with cultural significance as Sacred Groves (or Sarna Sthalas) rendering them restricted for lumbering. Importing only reduces wood’s economic sustainability. In the subsequent transportation phase, shipping lumber over long distances remains costly and questions wood's value as a low embodied impact material in comparison with locally-sourced vernacular materials such as rammed earth blocks. The processing phase necessitates consolidating trust within consumers who suspect its long-term robustness to heat and humidity which, when addressed, makes it economically unsustainable for developing countries in South-East Asia and the MENA Region. The construction phase in cheap labour markets of Asia and Latin America is subjected to a lack of expertise in building with engineered timber, in comparison to the familiarity of constructing with more prominent materials such as steel and concrete. Ensuring adequate skilled labour to work with prefabricated materials is prohibitively high-priced for stakeholders. In the subsequent operational and end-of-life phases, it is difficult for countries like India and Africa to bear with the retrofitting expense and labour-intensive disassembly to preserve its structural integrity and reuse value.

Thus, we investigate wood’s celebrated but preoccupied one-dimensional notion of ‘sustainability’ and offer new insights upon the material from a multi-dimensional perspective of reality and pragmatism unveiled across its life-cycle phases. More precisely, we pose the following questions. How can a life-cycle approach begin to address the complex character of wood as a building material and analyse its economic sustainability in the Global South? How can the market challenges be addressed to stimulate wood construction worldwide? Is our shared dream of “Wood Urbanism” further away than we think?