In recent years, the building design and construction industry in many developed economies has witnessed an increased interest in the use of timber framed (TF) construction for low to mid-rise development projects.
The use of timber has been facilitated and in some cases led by changes to building regulations and further supported by supply chain and technological innovations. This is evident from Finland and Sweden, to the UK and to Canada and the USA and now to Australia.
In Australia, prominent developments such as Lend Lease's Forte building and Australand’s The Green apartments have grabbed the headlines. The substantial corporate investment in TF construction technology made by these top tier developers clearly heralds a future crop of timber-designed projects.
For some developers and builders who never think beyond a concrete frame for the structure of anything over two storeys, the use of timber is somewhat mystifying. Some cynical industry players explain the innovation away as just a marketing gimmick to capture ‘green’ buyers.
Whilst TF construction has undeniably superior environmental credentials over concrete, a marketing benefit alone would not justify the commitment these major companies have made to establish new timber-based supply chains, trade suppliers and project management processes.
The premise also ignores the significant existing group of smaller developer/builders, notably mostly operating in Melbourne, who have over many years utilised TF in preference to concrete for their three to four-storey residential and mixed-use suburban projects. In smaller firms with tight margins, where efficiency is the key to profitability, the economic argument in favour of TF is obviously compelling for those in the know.
Timber has been a mainstay in Australian housing for generations, so why is Victoria so far ahead of other States in realising the innovation benefits of TF construction technology? The answer in part, may be that the historical variation in housing construction methods across the states has resulted in a more established timber construction supply chain Victoria. A 2013 survey by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found considerable differences in methodology across the states. It found that as a result, different preferences for materials and development of capacities by companies and trade groups have been institutionalised at the state level.
Nevertheless, whilst historical practice has led to current supply chain dynamics, the advent of engineered TF multi-storey solutions is a relatively recent innovation and can be equally applied in most areas of Australia. The engineered timber fabrication and supply industry is now well established across all states. Some leading truss and frame brands such as Pryda and Mitek are better represented in Victoria and NSW than in Queensland, for example, but other suppliers such as Tilling Timber have broadly similar distribution facilities.
The establishment of timber multi-storey construction as a mainstream methodology will contribute to a bigger picture that brings industry-wide benefits.
Shrinking household size, leading to increased demand for local multi-residential projects that offer families a nearby home for their son or daughter or elderly parent, is evident in many urban council areas. Housing affordability is one of the critical barriers to entry for new home buyers, but as is widely understood, land prices are only going up.
The reduced construction cost that can be achieved with timber, with overall project time (and holding cost) savings, builders’ preliminary costs for formwork, concrete pumps etc. and trade simplification when wet trades are eliminated, can potentially make feasible many smaller infill suburban developments, the likes of which currently struggle to secure bank construction funding.
The trend toward construction diversification is good for the building industry in all states. Over-dependence on one form of construction leads to supply chain dominance and reduces market competition. It fosters undue control by industrial interests that can only result in price increases and an overly concentrated workforce.
Likewise, Australia will benefit from growth in the plantation timber industry that supplies most structural sawnwood product. The Finnish government’s interest in increasing the use of wood in construction is driven by changes in global timber markets that undermine competitiveness of the traditionally strong Finnish forest industry. The same logic applies in Australia. We have a strong local timber supply, but capacity utilisation is already in sight.
This fact must be overlaid onto our ever-increasing demand for new housing. ABS statistics clearly show that medium to high density construction is where industry growth is. With increasing numbers of timber-framed apartment projects, pressure will inevitably build for Government to support new opportunities and incentives for expansion of our existing plantation-based production capability.
For all these reasons, the current application by the Forest and Wood Product Association to increase height allowances for timber-framed construction under the BCA should be actively supported by the development and construction industry.
Ultimately, as many overseas studies have shown, it is developers and builders who have the greatest influence over the choice of construction methodology for new development. There are many reasons why developers and builders should take advantage of the inherent benefits of timber structures. Once traditional thinking is expanded to include timber-framed construction as an economic alternative for appropriate suburban projects, the added industry benefits will begin to be realised.
Among these is the up-skilling of the design industry to support developer decisions. There are currently good, albeit still limited, numbers of specialist consultants that have the required expertise in the area of timber construction.
With more demand from developers, these numbers will grow and we will all benefit as a result.