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Cross Laminated Timber - everyone’s heard of it, but not everyone’s used it

Who’s everyone? Well, architects, architectural technologists & structural engineers, that’s who.

There are others in the UK construction and property sectors who haven’t heard of it but who really should have by now - contractors, developers, building control inspectors/officers, planners, quantity surveyors, insurers, mortgage and warranty providers, to list but a few.

And then there are the ones who have heard a bit about it but haven’t used it and who, in any case, prefer to stick with traditional slow, weather-dependent and imprecise forms of construction such as brick and block.

Yet it’s not as if cross laminated timber is something new and thus inherently risky: the UK’s first CLT project was constructed just over 25 years ago and has been followed by many hundreds of others, from small to large; from simple to complex; as a straightforward substitute for more traditional building methods and/or materials; and in highly innovative projects that continue to drive the industry towards completely new design and construction possibilities.

So what is there to learn? Isn’t CLT just large, solid wooden panels screwed together? Wrong, there’s more to it than that - a lot more.

But you didn’t hear much, if anything, about in during your formal education in college or university and nobody makes it in the UK, so why should you learn about using it?

After all, wood burns, it gets wet and rots and bugs eat it - it just doesn’t have the durability of concrete, masonry or steel and it’s not cost-competitive against these tried and tested technologies, is it? Apart from combustibility (and even then you’d be wrong), modern timber technologies can provide positive responses on each of these points to all of these supposed deficiencies.

Like so much else in construction, a fair amount of mythology abounds or, perhaps more accurately, misinformation and even disinformation perpetuates from rival industries about mass timber - and CLT in particular - little of which, it might be said, is founded in fact and scientific evidence.

On the other hand, a long catalogue of positive benefits attributable to the use of CLT in construction exists - too lengthy to enumerate here - but suffice to say it’s an extremely fast and accurate way to build; it’s formed from the principal renewable material (wood) available to us; and it sequesters huge amounts of carbon throughout a building’s life - and beyond when the material is reused. So, what’s not to like?

In the urgent battle to move the dial towards zero carbon and confront the climate emergency in the built environment, the construction industry - here and internationally - needs to dramatically alter its modus operandi towards more sustainable materials and methods. CLT is certainly not the only future for construction but it can have a significant impact in changing the ways we build. In hybrid form with other materials, CLT offers efficient, sustainable and innovative new building solutions.

Many other countries’ governments are already moving at speed in this direction: the UK needs to do so too - the environmental clock is ticking.

Peter Wilson, 01 May 2024


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