Digital technologies and wooden buildings

With investors seeking more sustainable options, digital technologies are making wooden buildings competitive with traditional construction

Author: Matthew Linegar

07 April 2020

International House in Sydney is Australia's first massive wood commercial office building. Image © Lendlease

International House in Sydney is Australia's first massive wood commercial office building. Image © Lendlease

A major shift has been taking place in construction in recent years. The use of massive engineered wood products coupled with digital design tools and manufacturing has enabled a new kind of building, offering advantages such as expanded architectural opportunities, improved health and well-being, and perhaps most importantly, a building that is constructed sustainably and can even be recycled at the end of its life.

Perhaps it's unfair to call this new: the world's oldest wooden building, the Horyuji temple in Japan, is still standing some 1,300 years after it was built. But although concrete buildings have dominated our post-industrial landscapes, their environmental impacts are now clearer, presenting an opportunity for innovative wooden construction as an alternative. Furthermore, unlike so many materials in the construction industry, trees are renewable.

In recent years, more and more notable wooden buildings have been constructed from the Moholt 50/50 student accommodation in Trondheim, Norway to International House, Lendlease's commercial office building at Barangaroo in Sydney Australia, and the Wood City project in Helsinki, Finland which includes apartments, office blocks and an hotel.

Unlike so many other materials in construction, trees are renewable
Finnish milestone

The Finnish renewable materials company Stora Enso is currently working with dozens of projects around the world, many of which are helping regenerate urban areas, and the growth in massive engineered wood production has been noticeable for the firm. Last summer, it reached the milestone of manufacturing more than one million cubic metres of cross-laminated timber since its mills began production in 2008.

Alongside this growing interest, digital tools are being introduced to deal with some of the industrys biggest challenges, including operational efficiency and understanding of wood construction.

The industry is lagging behind when it comes to efficiency and digitalisation, but applications such as building information modelling (BIM) allow different disciplines to coordinate and collaborate on 3D models, which can also include data of different kinds from all interested parties.

This model can be shared and the data gathered in the design phase can be used at the construction site during the buildings lifetime and even at the end of its life. By using BIM we can also engineer massive wooden components that are smart: that is they can provide data that can be used actively giving live information about the performance of those products including the temperature or moisture content of a space. If an owner has this kind of information then its easier for them to ensure optimum maintenance of a building during it's lifetime.

Stora Enso is meanwhile piloting radio-frequency identification sensors that can provide basic information on the temperature and moisture content of a wooden panel. The idea is that sensors could send an early warning signal if moisture levels exceed a certain point, enabling a building owner to avoid long-term damage and ensure the quality of the materials so they can be re-used at the end of life. It is also feasible that such sensors could be linked to building fire safety and alarm systems.

In 2018, Stora Enso began collaborating with a digital start-up to act as a research and development hub for new tools and services that address the challenges and demands of the construction industry. The results of this collaboration are already bearing fruit; for example, an app called auratool has been developed that allows users to hear the variation in acoustic quality between different wall and floor constructions in real time.

The future is renewable

The future will be about constructing buildings from renewable materials, with data readily available to ensure that the same materials can then be extensively re-used in a subsequent building.

This will help us go a long way to creating a circular economy at a time when it's most needed: minimising waste and pollution, keeping natural products in use, and regenerating natural systems.

The sustainability argument is also one that is gaining more interest from investors. There are short-term reasons for this, in that wooden buildings are attractive for tenants: blue-chip companies are often interested in the demonstrable health and well-being benefits of working in a wooden space. But in the long term, investors and tenants are also demanding buildings with lower embodied carbon emissions and wooden buildings give them clear advantages in this regard.

With the addition of new digital tools, wooden buildings can now be made so efficiently that the sustainability comes for free. In the future, it's hard to see a better alternative than a skyline made from wood enhanced through digitalisation.

Matthew Linegar is director of research and development and product management for building solutions at Stora Enso matthew.linegar@storaenso.com

Related competencies include: Construction technology and environmental services, Sustainability

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