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How timber buildings can save the world

The Black & White Building illustrates the unique environmental and sustainable benefits of timber construction

There’s no getting away from it: the construction of new buildings, with the traditional materials of steel, iron and cement, accounts for around 39% of all global carbon emissions. Reducing these figures is crucial to ensure a healthy, prosperous and biodiverse future and the answer could lie in nature itself. Step forward timber.

Timber is naturally renewable and has the lowest embodied carbon – the carbon created in construction - of any building material. It’s visually appealing, readily available from sustainable and ethical sources and is structurally robust. No wonder forward-thinking architects are already using it in innovative ways. Look at Mandela Buurt, an entire neighbourhood made from wood in Amsterdam. Or Trenezia, a sustainable village in Bergen, Norway with 1,500 timber homes in a zero-emissions overwater project. Challenging and visionary projects? Certainly. Futuristic ones? No, both are in planning today.

In London’s creative heartland of Shoreditch, The Black & White Building is also leading the way for timber construction. Due to open this winter, it will be Central London’s tallest mass timber office building, the latest project from experienced flexible workspace providers TOG and their first offices constructed from the ground up.

“There are timber buildings in London but most have a traditional steel frame and concrete core,” says Charlie Green, co-founder of TOG. “I became convinced of the benefits of using timber, both environmentally and for those who would use the workspace. Once we saw it was possible and understood the advantages over traditional construction, The Black & White Building was an ideal opportunity to champion timber construction throughout.”

The end result, he says, is beautiful in every sense.

“It’s visually beautiful, yes, but beautiful also in what it contributes to the future of construction, showing the industry that building in a more sustainable way can and should be done,” says Green. “I hope the impact we make for the long term is bigger than the building itself. One reason people will rent space there is because they’ll support their ESG and sustainability agenda just by choosing to rent space here, but they’ll also get a workspace to delight in. You can touch the timber, see it and smell it, it’s real and natural. The daylight pours in, bouncing off the timber. It connects you to nature and in a workplace, that is unexpected.”

The environmental credentials of The Black & White Building are outstanding. It is constructed from ethically and sustainably sourced timber from Austria and Germany which are cut into planks before being transported directly to London. At every point in its journey, the carbon footprint is minimised, reducing embodied carbon overall by 37% over a comparable concrete and steel building. Timber construction also means that the carbon captured by trees as they grew is stored rather than released into the atmosphere.

Running costs and operational carbon levels will be lowered thanks to The Black & White Building’s striking tilted wood shading fins on the façade which optimise ventilation, heat control and natural light. And the unique construction method, where the wood slots together, means not only that the build is faster – taking 14 weeks to assemble the wood section compared with 37 weeks for traditional methods - but that in time, the timber can be taken apart and reused, a vital factor in a successful circular economy based on recycling materials and lowering waste.

“Timber is quite simply the future of sustainable construction,” agrees Andrew Waugh, founder and director at Waugh Thistleton Architects (WTA), world leaders in timber construction who were appointed by TOG to design The Black & White Building. “It allows us to build cleanly and quickly with a low carbon, waste-free process and additionally it smells gorgeous. Timber is far more adaptable than concrete, giving buildings true longevity, and can be reused again and again. Sustainability aside, the health and wellness benefits of using natural materials are well proven. Timber buildings regulate the amount of moisture in the air, they are tactile and sensorially pleasing. It is the only viable replacement for concrete and steel.”

A global groundswell of opinion is catching up with his viewpoint. “Just making cement causes three times more carbon than air travel and many countries acknowledge that this is not sustainable,” says Waugh. “Ireland has put a 10% tax on concrete. In France, half of all government procured buildings must be made of timber and Amsterdam has mandated that from 2025, 20 per cent of all new housing projects must be constructed with wood or other biobased materials.”

Waugh claims that for several decades, the UK has focused on improving operational carbon, the carbon used when a building is occupied and running, making good carbon savings through double glazing and improved insulation for example. But in turn that exposes the major issue of how we build and the materials we use. “TOG have shown that they are ahead of the curve, determined to drive transformational change in the environment workspaces offer,” says Waugh.

For TOG, The Black & White Building has brought a commitment to never build in a traditional way again. “As a mass timber construction, The Black & White Building shows our commitment to sustainability and to the health and well-being of the people who will work there,” says Green. “We’re making a material impact on the environment with this building and an even bigger impact on the industry itself.”

Go behind the scenes and explore the sustainability story of The Black & White Building, opening December 2022.

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