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Homegrown timber needs to be prioritised says James Brennan, head of marketing for BSW Group, if we are to create a healthier and less import-led supply chain.

Building homes for the future, and with a focus on net zero, will demand a shift in mindset from a nation hooked on steel and concrete. It will also take industries, such as ours in forestry and timber, to push forward with an array of materials that have taken second place to others, up until now.

As a nation, we are the world’s third highest importer of timber, behind China and now the USA, with a huge 82% of our wood coming from overseas in 2020. With such a stark statistic, along with 25% of global emissions coming from the built environment, isn’t it about time that we considered the benefits of homegrown timber and what it can offer the construction industry. UK-grown timber can offer several benefits.

Using homegrown timber should be a point of pride for construction in this country-something that brands boast about on their marketing materials. But it is often overlooked by the construction industry in favour of imported wood, or even for other materials such as concrete. But as the COP26 house (built with BSW Group homegrown timber) demonstrated, it’s an excellent raw material for sustainable, modern and beautiful homes. Homegrown timber can have more knots than some imported varieties, which is a reason why some don’t take advantage of UK-grown wood, but this makes no difference to the product. In fact, UK timber is well-suited for all sorts of needs from timber frames to landscaping to stud walls.

Timber is an essential tool for building sustainable, affordable homes in a cost and time-effective manner. It allows us to build heat efficient, carbon reducing homes, which ultimately helps to reduce fuel poverty. In fact, in some cases building homes with timber can reduce energy bills by 90%.

Furthermore, timber build times are up to 30% faster compared to other materials, which will help the construction industry to quickly meet the growing demand for new, high-quality homes in the UK. The faster build times also reduces time on-site and disruption to the local area and research even shows that waste is reduced by up to 90% for timber constructions compared to other materials.

The UK is facing a high demand for affordable homes. Councils face a difficult battle to prioritise this need whilst also reckoning with environmental targets. Homegrown timber has the benefit of being a much more environmentally friendly option for construction. Timber is a fully renewable resource, but it also provides benefits long before it reaches a building site. During their lifecycle, trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere, helping to reduce the impact of climate change -while using timber as a building material then locks away that carbon. A 2019 study by Bangor University, on behalf of the committee on climate change, suggested using timber products as opposed to masonry could lead to a 20% reduction in emissions and 50% increase in carbon storage.

82% of wood overall in the UK is imported, and the figure is around two thirds when looking at sawn timber. Importing the vast majority of our wood adds a huge carbon footprint to construction due to the impact of transporting the raw material from other countries. Another effect is the threat to our ecosystem. According to the Woodland Trust, at least 20 serious tree pests and diseases have been unwittingly brought to the UK since 1990 as imports have skyrocketed, leading to the loss of tens of millions of trees. With consequences like this, the short-sighted focus on importing is ironically making it even harder to produce timber locally.

Demonstrating the scale of the opportunity at hand, estimates show that just 0.5% of new buildings in the UK will be constructed with timber by 2050. However, research suggests it’s conceivable that this figure could reach as high as 90% if the UK puts in a concerted effort to increase mass production of timber domestically. Timber has the added benefit of requiring less energy to produce than other materials, further boosting its green credentials.

As a nation we need to come together and invest in homegrown timber. Of course, as the UK’s largest integrated timber and forestry business, BSW Group has a role to play, but this is bigger than any one company. We need the buy-in of stakeholders across the industry from architects and suppliers to construction companies – to specify homegrown timber on suitable projects moving forward. We see a future where UK timber is the go-to material for creating sustainable, affordable and beautiful homes. We see homegrown materials being a priority for the construction industry. We see net zero targets hit, and the nation enjoying millions of affordable and energy efficient homes. What future do you see?