Stuart Goodall: See the wood for the trees to solve our housing crisis

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Scotland needs to build 20,000 new homes every year during the lifetime of the freshly elected Holyrood Parliament. Across the UK, annual demand is estimated at an eye-watering 316,000 new homes.

Put simply, we can’t do it – because the current housebuilding model isn’t working. We need to build more homes very quickly and current construction models just can’t deliver the numbers needed to address continuing and increasing demand. 

So what’s the answer? Well, let’s start with wood – or Green Gold, as it has been described by one construction expert.

Off-site construction of timber-framed homes is growing, with Legal and General investing £55 million to build 3,000 wooden houses every year in a Yorkshire factory. Scottish companies like Stewart Milne Timber Systems, MAKAR and many more are producing superb timber-framed homes off site, beating the vagaries of the weather and the unpredictability of on-site construction.

However, much more can be done to meet housing demand if we realise the full potential of off-site timber construction – it is fast, flexible and fit-for-purpose, allowing companies to adapt designs to create smaller housing units.

More people live alone and we can’t just keep building three to four-bedroom houses in the suburbs, even if that is what many aspire to; it isn’t sustainable. Working with timber offers a flexibility that bricks and mortar cannot.

In addition, the enhanced use of wood in housebuilding can help to address a whole range of other policy priorities, including fuel poverty and climate change.

How? Well, planting trees soaks up carbon dioxide and creating wood products (including timber frames for housing) stores carbon. Wood is by far the best building material for the environment; creating a tonne of bricks uses four times more energy than creating a tonne of sawn softwood. Concrete requires five times more energy than wood, and steel an estimated 24 times more energy.

On fuel poverty, we must build new, well-insulated homes as well as retro-fitting older homes – and precision manufactured wood panels with high-quality insulation already in place are a great way to do this. We must move the debate on from fuel poverty to heating poverty. Scotland has some of the least thermally efficient houses in Europe and people can’t afford to heat their homes because they are poorly built.

Wood also fits the aims of the Zero Waste Scotland campaign. Only one per cent of wood waste ends up in landfill, whereas 50 per cent of all Scotland’s landfill waste is from construction sites. There’s a very simple message there – use more wood in construction and there will be considerably less landfill.

Wood is also the most sustainable building material. You can just keep growing more and wood products can be reused or recycled, and at the end of their useful life, or burnt to produce renewable energy. Nothing goes to waste.

Despite all this, we are failing to hit our planting targets, jeopardising the future of a £1 billion forestry and wood industry in Scotland, which employs well over 25,000 people directly. The SNP manifesto pledged to “plant 10,000 hectares of new woodland every year to 2022” – around 22 million trees annually – and we will work with the new Scottish Government to ensure that happens.

If we plant those trees, then Scotland can make progress towards its climate change targets, tackle fuel poverty, and provide the wood for those homes we need so desperately – now and in the future.

A Wood for Good conference of architects, designers and international speakers in Edinburgh this week heard all these positive messages and more – and I haven’t even talked about the beauty of forests and the fantastic recreational opportunities they offer. So, one final thought: Glentress forest, near Peebles, attracts 300,000 people per year, but how many of them would want to mountain bike around an iron ore mine or a quarry?

- Stuart Goodall is chief executive of Confor, promoting forestry and wood