One of the world’s most venerable building materials could soon become increasingly prevalent in the construction of large-scale structures due to its rising cost competitiveness and intrinsic sustainability benefits.

According to Perry Forsythe, professor of Construction Management at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), new research indicates that timber is an economical building material for large-scale building projects as long as the right conditions for its usage are in place.

“Forsythe, who will be sharing his expertise on timber building solutions at this year’s Frame Australia Conference and Exhibition on engineered wood construction systems in June, points in particular to the results of a recent collaborative initiative between UTS and the Timber Development Association (under work funded by Forest and Wood Products Australia), to investigate timber’s potential as a building material for office and residential projects.”

“We have been involved in a recent project with the Timber Development Association and a number of consultancy companies concerning the development of a prototypical office building and a multi-storey residential building,” said Forsythe. “Each prototype compares a timber version with a typical in-situ reinforced concrete version.”

The research concluded that timber has emerged as a viable viable alternative to concrete for the construction of modern buildings in terms of economic performance and convenience of handling, as long as the right project planning, engineering and preparations are in place.

“We found that timber can be realistically cost competitive and rapid to construct as long as it is designed with a view to optimising readily available material and component sizes, paying close attention to simple fabrication and erection techniques, being mindful of site construtability and prefab programming advantages, and ensuring that the timber design is engineered to get the most economical result in terms of the NCC performance requirements,” said Forsythe.

“Things like cranage efficiency, calculation of ‘saved preliminary costs’ and meeting fire and sound requirements are particularly important.”

Fire safety is already one area where modern timber has made major strides, with Arup engineer Robert Gerard noting that techniques have already been developed for the adoption of wood as a safe and reliable building material for multi-storey construction.

According to Gerard, the solutions already exist to produce multi-storey timber buildings that possess sufficient fire safety, including the encapsulation of frames in rigid, non-combustible gypsum board, and taking advantage of the predictable charring rate of heavy timber structural components.

In addition to being cost-competitive and safe, modern timber also remains one of the most sustainable building materials on the market given that it’s derived from an organic, renewable source and involves the emission of far less carbon dioxide than its peers. The research conducted by Forsythe with his peers found wood to be a standout when it comes to sustainable building.

“In sustainability terms, timber is a particularly strong performer,” said Forsythe. “For instance in terms of green house gas emissions, we found that the timber prototype version had much lower emissions than the concrete version.”

Members of Australia’s construction sector appear to be increasingly aware of the potential advantages of timber for larger buildings, with ongoing efforts to raise the restriction on the effective height of wood construction systems in Australia to 25 metres (approximately eight storeys), as well as the construction of the world’s tallest timber apartment complex in the world in the form of Lend Lease’s Forte project on Melbourne’s Victoria Harbour.