Sustainable forestry one of the most important architectural issues of our time

The forest industry is one of Sweden’s most important industries and a cornerstone of the Swedish economy. With its natural raw material, the forest industry also plays a key role in the development towards a sustainable, bio-based society and the phasing out of fossil concrete and steel. But is it sustainable to build on a large scale in wood, and how does the increased demand affect our forests?

The best material for carbon-neutral construction is wood. It is renewable, acts as a carbon sink, provides lighter transport, lower carbon footprint at the construction stage and more efficient building processes. In short, it contributes to many climate gains. Wood also has positive effects on human well-being, which is a parameter that is difficult to measure in crowns. Last but not least, wood construction has advantages in terms of life-cycle cost, compared to steel and concrete.

Wood has a key role to play in fulfilling the vision that all White architecture should be climate positive by 2030. As a major player, White has the opportunity to raise the state of knowledge on wood construction. Jan Wijkmark is basically an ecologist and the deputy Office Director at the Stockholm office:

– What we prescribe has a big impact, both on how our future buildings look and whether they perform sustainably. There is a great responsibility on a prescribing architect to trace the material not just one, but several steps back. As well as understanding the ecological consequences of our choices, says Jan Wijkmark.

Ecological systems are very complex, but part of our job in building sustainably is to understand in depth and share that knowledge with our clients.
Jan Wijkmark

With long experience and the ecological perspective as a starting point, Jan Wijkmark has seen a radical change in the industry in recent years. But until then, things were slow.

– Taking the debate to choose wood over other materials has historically been controversial. The fact that the big construction players have been major shareholders in the concrete industry has probably influenced the industry’s conservatism, and I have been frustrated by the blatant delay in the past, says Jan Wijkmark.

Sara Cultural Centre. Photo: Visit Skellefteå

Today, the debate has largely moved on. The fact that steel and concrete are not renewable is impossible to ignore, and wood has been found to be the only large-scale alternative. As a result, demand is also increasing.

Daniel Asp is the development manager for the wood network at White and has 10 years of architectural experience with wood as a building material. Both he and Jan Wijkmark testify that there is not as much of a struggle today to get wood accepted as an alternative to steel and concrete as there was just a few years ago.

– It’s clear to everyone why we have to use wood. Thanks to the enormous development of knowledge in materials processing and several completely innovative wood projects such as Sara Kulturhus, Nodi and Magasin X, we also know how and where we can use it. It’s time to focuson the next question: how we can make it as good and sustainable as possible, says Daniel Asp.

He stresses the importance of collaboration and sharing knowledge across sectors and skills:

White is an industry leader in several areas of wood. We have helped to clear up many big question marks. But we all can – and must – do so much better, and we need each other in the industry.
Daniel Asp

Deeply rooted culture

Swedish forestry has a long tradition of large scale and the industry in general is considered by many to be conservative. The processes are characterised by large-scale and the owners are often large and powerful companies, both state and private. Laws regulating forestry early on made the coppice model the common way of harvesting, and all actors have adapted to that model – in what Jan Wijkmark calls “typical Swedish large- scale spirit”.

It dominates so much that it has been difficult to present alternatives.
Jan Wijkmark

But, possibly, the industry’s habit of going big can be an advantage in making the transition quickly to more sustainable forestry. If the whole chain sees its benefits, then everyone can get on board. Nor is it a contradiction to combine industrial-scale profitable production with mixed forestry. Moreover, mixed forests are more resistant to insect infestation and storms, which pose a major economic risk to today’s forestry.

Lindesberg Health Centre. Photo: Åke E:son Lindman

Unused resource

Today, only about a fifth of forest raw material is used for timber. Using wood raw material as a building material is a high-value use because wood continues to store carbon dioxide for a long time, unlike using forest raw material for packaging or fuel, which is short-lived and quickly releases the carbon again when burned. A more efficient and long-lasting use of the raw material would have many benefits. At White, there are several completed and ongoing projects aimed at increasing the efficiency of wood use. These include both new methods to make greater use of traditional timber, and making better use of overlooked tree species.

Today, much of the wood is sorted out, unnecessarily. Alder, aspen and especially birch are examples of species that are currently hardly used at all for anything other than energy production or pulpwood, but which have enormous potential with the right processing techniques. Obviously, what is taken out of the forest should be used as fully as possible.
Daniel Asp

Challenges

Although the industry has woken up and the transition is underway, we face major challenges. When it comes to biodiversity, scientists say we are in even more trouble than on climate change,” says Jan Wijkmark. And increased timber construction risks further consequences for forests.

– With wood, we can replace materials with a high climate impact in new buildings. But it would be disastrous if we turned a blind eye to wood as a raw material and scaled up production without taking into account forests as habitats for plants and animals. Monocultures, coppicing and large-scale logging must be replaced by biodiversity, harvesting and new business models. It is a question of survival. By making better use of the raw material, it is possible to get more building material out of the forest and at the same time switch to more sustainable forestry, says Jan Wijkmark.

Both believe that the solution is dynamic.

– We should not think black or white – concrete or wood. We need to think about the right material in the right place, from the right place. It will mean new hybrid constructions, development of other bio-based raw materials, and in the vast majority of places it will also mean wood, says Daniel Asp.

The challenges are enormous, but I'm still positive. With better certification systems, creativity and collaboration, we will get there.
Jan Wijkmark

About White and forestry

  • The best thing is to renovate and recycle materials, but if we have to build new, wood is the best way to build carbon-neutrally.
  • We only prescribe wood that is FSC or PEFC certified. This is the most widely available label today for sustainable forest management that protects biodiversity. We are happy to work with even more sustainable certifications.
  • We choose materials based on what has the lowest environmental and climate impact in the location or country in question.
  • We have architects, engineers, landscape architects, sustainability strategists, ecologists, social planners and many other skills working towards our vision of 100% climate positive architecture by 2030.

Contact Person

Jan Wijkmark

Jan Wijkmark

Environmental specialist, Deputy managing director

Stockholm

+46 8 402 26 44

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