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A central platform to exchange best practices and ideas guiding the infrastructure and urban development industry in its transformation, and helping it to address its key challenges.

Natural Building Materials

The challenge

How can we build a better, healthier urban environment that is also sustainable on a global scale?

Over the course of this century, the world’s urban population will double. This will be the largest urbanization in human history and it is unlikely to ever be repeated. If we address this challenge by building in the same way and with the same materials that we have for the last century, we will irreparably damage our planet while doing less than we could to improve quality of life in our cities.

Our planet has an abundance of renewable natural resources whose potential as sustainable building materials has been largely unrealised. We believe that through a combination of science and design, intelligent modification and innovative engineering, we can harness the potential of our planet’s renewable natural material resource in order to build a better, healthier urban environment.

The idea

We can use natural materials better and use better natural materials to build a more enjoyable, healthier and more sustainable urban environment.

Plant-based materials such as timber and bamboo are renewable and available on a global scale. What distinguishes these materials from more conventional building products like steel, concrete and plastic is that the raw materials are grown and harvested rather than mined and reformed. This difference leads to a diverse range of material properties that we have only recently begun to understand and exploit beyond the domestic scale. This difference also seems to affect the way in which people interact with these materials in an urban context, with people seeming to make a positive association between these grown materials and the natural environment. Developments in engineered timber are already opening new possibilities for the use of natural materials at scales previously thought impossible.

The impact

Buildings constructed with greater use of natural materials have the potential to improve the health and well-being of those who live and work, in and around them, without the legacy of environmental destruction that accompanies the production of conventional building materials.

It is well established that increased contact with the natural environment improves the health and well-being of those living in a primarily urban environment. It would seem that people respond to natural materials in the built environment in a similarly positive manner. It is not an accident that at home people choose to expose wooden floor-boards and doors, buy wooden furniture and put up wooden shelves.

Real projects such as the all timber Murray Grove building in London suggest that timber can be quicker, quieter and cleaner to erect than conventional multi-story buildings. Such buildings require five time less construction traffic than equivalent concrete buildings and weigh perhaps a third as much, meaning foundations can be very much smaller. Supply chains for timber promote responsible forest management and encourage long term afforestation and carbon sequestration rather than the devastation associated with mineral extraction and the near-term emissions of mineral processing.

The barriers to innovation –and solutions

The industry is risk-averse and slow to innovate – better understanding and leadership by example are required.

Our understanding of materials and the engineering required to use them most effectively is highly developed in relation to metals and artificial composites but less so in relation to plant-based materials and bio-composites. Many leading producers and designers of engineered timber products come from a tradition of forestry and carpentry and are at times resistant to industrial innovation. The construction industry itself is highly risk averse and the construction market does not seem to function effectively to drive competition through innovation in the manner of other industries of comparable economic impact. Investment is required from government, foundation and industry into academic research, industrial development and the sorts of prototypes and exemplar projects that are needed to prove these ideas. There are profound regional perspectives that could unlock some of this potential, for example bamboo in China, South America and parts of Africa, and currently difficult to use species such as Eucalyptus in much of the developing world.

The way forward

The engagement of people with expertise in science, engineering and design, can lead to greater use of natural materials in buildings, resulting in greater well-being in a healthier, more sustainable built environment.

Direct investment in academic research and industrial development of natural materials and technologies is required to accelerate progress and build on the momentum and goodwill generated by the pioneering work in this area. Much of the early development work has come from the commitment of individuals, both in academia and industry, to addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunities presented by these materials and technologies. The next step requires the funding of larger research centres, crossing academic and industrial lines, as well as disciplinary boundaries, to bring together the understanding and skills needed to fully exploit the potential of these materials.