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Taking up timber: How regulation is changing the way we use sustainable materials in construction

As the UK looks to tighten their approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, every industry is under pressure to identify ways to lower their environmental impact, says Anna Roberts, Head of Market Development at iov42.

Since the UK’s built environment contributes a quarter of the nation’s emissions, the construction sector plays a huge role in shifting to sustainability – not just as a moral imperative, but as a requirement of incoming regulations.


Anna Roberts

Recently, there has been a renewed interest in the greenest of building materials: timber. Not only is it low cost and quick to work with, but timber-related industries in the UK are responsible for just 0.35% of UK emissions compared to the nation’s other manufacturing industries such as steel and concrete (responsible for 2.7% and 1.5% of emissions respectively).

So, unsurprisingly, timber frame homes are becoming increasingly popular – already accounting for 75% of all new housing in Scotland and 23% in England. By 2026 it’s forecasted that the timber frame market will rise even more, by over £150 million.

There is, however, a dark side to the success of timber. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the demand for timber has, in part, fuelled a boom in illegal logging operations. Unsustainable logging has threatened not only the stability of the world’s biodiversity, but also the safety and prosperity of local communities – and this is where regulation is essential.

Fortunately, work has started: following discussions at COP27, the European Parliament and Council announced a provisional deal to cut down worldwide deforestation by implementing mandatory due diligence requirements for a number of commodities – including timber. This is a huge step towards cracking down on illegal activity and improving sustainability efforts. Other organisations are also beginning to chip in, with Timber Development UK, one of the largest supply chain bodies for timber in the UK, looking to accelerate the pace towards a low carbon future through their Net Zero Roadmap project.

For the construction industry, complying with these growing regulations and calls for partnerships will be essential, especially as importers in Europe are required to trace products back to their forest source. Regulation is shifting accountability to the entire supply chain, so that more sustainable cities and homes don’t require unsustainable sacrifices.

More regulations, more accountability

Britain is currently the world’s second largest importer of wood (after China), importing around £7.5 billion worth of timber annually, accounting for a huge 80% of our wood requirement. This means there is a huge responsibility to make sure that the majority of our timber supply is indeed sustainably sourced.

The recent legislation over the last year is only the beginning of a regulatory shift to greener processes, and with it, more businesses, such as timber suppliers, will be looking to take up tech solutions that can help them keep up. This is where Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) can step in to fill the gap.

DLT, the technology which underpins blockchain, can provide security and immutability reassurances to incentivise the supply chain to use technology to meet the requirements. When designed to be enterprise-grade, certain systems can provide standardised data capture and bring together science-based testing and third-party verification into one, trusted system.

Through this, construction companies can verify the true authenticity and sustainability of products, with permissioned parties able to instantly access the necessary information to do their own due diligence on a product’s history. With access to information from any point in the product’s journey – including carbon footprint data – buyers can guarantee its green credentials.

Circular construction will be the primary goal

As we see a mood shift away from mass consumerist mindsets of buying cheap and selling fast, things are changing. Society is increasingly aware that our natural resources are not unlimited. This awareness, however uncomfortable, has precipitated a shift to a ‘circular economy’ – one in which existing materials are designed and used as efficiently as possible.

For our built environment, there’s a huge opportunity to help create a more circular supply chain through better trust and planning. The construction industry uses 400 million tonnes of material each year, resulting in a shocking 100 million tonnes of waste. So, it’s important that we incentivise ways for organisations to reuse and retrofit products that would usually be thrown away. This holistic approach to recycling can also be applied to other industries like steel, right down to reusing construction equipment from project to project.

Increasing regulations around how companies use sustainable materials, like timber, in the construction industry, is forcing all industries to come up with better ways for us to collaborate with nature and each other. This year, and the next, will continue to see us getting comfortable with solutions like DLT technology that can truly help drive us towards a circular, more responsible economy.

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