What’s not to love about wood?

By Lee Zhuomin

This week, the fourth edition of EcoBuild Southeast Asia returns to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre in Malaysia.

Organised by UBM in collaboration with the Construction Industry Development Board, this year’s event marks EcoBuild’s fourth year of partnership with Malaysia’s International Construction Week.

To give construction players a leg up for the future, CIDB has put together the Construction Industry Transformation Programme, an ambitious five-year plan that focuses on:

  1. Quality, Safety and Professionalism

  2. Environmental Sustainability

  3. Productivity

  4. Internationalisation

Malaysia’s Construction Industry Development Board

It is ambitious because currently the number of fatal worksite accidents stands at seven for every 100, 000 workers, far exceeding the rate in Singapore, Australia, and the UK. The aim is to halve the number of fatalities by 2020. Less than two per cent of Malaysia’s construction projects are rated sustainable; by 2020, the target is for all infrastructure and building projects to exceed sustainability requirements.

The Programme also aspires to increase productivity per capita from the current US$7,000 to US$16,500 in five years. Only three Malaysian companies are currently internationally active; by 2020, the number is expected to rise to 10.

As veteran publishers for the international woodworking and furniture industry, I have little to say about the building and construction industry. There is, however, a lot of chime in for the sustainability bit.

Buildings account for 40 per cent of total primary energy consumption and one-third of total greenhouse gases. Their green credentials play an important role in stimulating economic and social development.

To go green, selecting the “right material for the right purpose” has never been more important, according to Atsushi Takano from Kagoshima University’s Department of Architecture and Architectural Engineering.

In other words, this means rethinking material use. And this means wood.

At EcoBuild, wood suppliers were few and far in between, with many offering products in the form of finished doors, flooring and decking. There were no engineering companies offering expertise in wood construction or advanced wood materials such as glulam, cross-laminated timber or laminated veneer lumber–of all which are great structural elements in terms of strength and aesthetics.

The Wood in Architecture Asia team was also present this afternoon, promoting the new magazine and generally sharing experiences with visitors curious to know more about, well, wood in architecture. Because really, what’s not to love about this organic, versatile, sustainable material?

Weight-for-weight, wood can carry a heavier load compared to steel. Timber performs better during a fire as it creaks and groans before giving way; steel on the other hand collapses at high temperatures without warning. It is also earthquake- and explosion-resistant, and, given the right treatment will be able to withstand rot, moisture and termites.

One designer whom I spoke with this afternoon lamented that wood is expensive. “That’s how you keep the forests standing,” I said. “And good things don’t come cheap.”

By that I don’t mean that selling at a higher cost deters buyers, so fewer trees are being cut down. (The reality is sustainable forestry does cost financially and effort-wise.) On the contrary, increased demand for wood use ensures forests are managed responsibly so that there is enough for the next generation to make a living from.

Sadly, wood was under-represented, even though EcoBuild’s running theme this year was quality and sustainability. Traditional building materials were on offer as usual: steel, concrete, plasterboards, cement, plastic, wood-plastic composite.

One company representative selling WPC went so far as to suggest that their product is “better than wood because it can be made to look like wood.”

I’m thinking she’s forgotten that plastic takes an infinitely longer amount of time to decompose; a wood-based product on the other hand can be recycled when it has reached the end of its life.

Hopefully change is on the way. Eager to promote wood, the Malaysian Timber Council had a huge booth, as did the Malaysian Timber Industry Board along with some of its members.

The Malaysian Timber Council at EcoBuild SEA

The Malaysian Timber Industry Board

Wood is not the only solution, but it can make a big difference in the built environment if architects, builders and project managers were bold or adventurous enough to experiment with it.

If sustainability, climate change mitigation and greener living are to dominate tomorrow’s issues, then surely the industry would do well to rethink (not replace) materials and how they will impact their next generation.

*EcoBuild SEA runs from April 12 to 14 at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center.

**The Wood in Architecture Asia team will be happy to talk to you at its booth A019.