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'Genuine will to build with wood has been missing'

28 January 2010

'Genuine will to build with wood has been missing'

Sweden has overtaken Finland in building with wood. The achievement is due to the enthusiasm of a few municipalities and companies.
About fifteen years ago both Finland and Sweden woke up and started to promote modern wood building. Today, the results are quite different.
In Sweden, almost as many as one fifth of all new blocks of flats are made from wood. In Finland a total of 31 wooden blocks of flats have been built so far. The pre-requisite for constructing major public wooden buildings, such as the Sibelius Hall in the City of Lahti, has been financial support from a body with links to the forest sector.
This is how things stand, despite the fact that the current Government is the fourth in a row to have a promotion programme for building with wood. Why has Sweden managed to translate the programmes into action better than Finland?
The question is so interesting that Mr. Jan Vapaavuori, the Finnish Minister of Housing, made a trip to Sweden this January to look for answers. The Minister visited the city of Växjö, which the British Broadcasting Company BBC named as the Greenest City of Europe in 2007.

Swedish municipalities openly favour wood
”I was left with the impression that certain municipalities and forest industry companies have simply had a strong will to promote building with wood. For example, the city of Växjö really wants to be profiled as an ecologically-minded forerunner which takes climate change issues seriously,” Vapaavuori says.
All of Sweden has not been swept over by a wood-building fever, he thinks, but exciting examples can be found in many municipalities. A similar interest has not been kindled in Finland.
The Finnish building code has been criticised as being anti-wood, and it has been blamed for the lack of interest in Finland in building anything except small-sized dwellings from wood. Vapaavuori feels that the building code can be improved, but that it is not the central cause of the stumbling progress of building with wood.
”The main reason is that there are many actors, such as municipalities or builders, which simply have not been interested enough in building with wood. If there were will, there would be a way to make substantial wooden buildings in compliance with the current building code. And on the other hand, the revision of the building code would have been started earlier,” Vapaavuori thinks.

Depression got the forest sector interested
Last autumn, the Minister of Housing set up a working group to ponder whether the Finnish building code includes provisions that cause unfair obstacles and extra costs to the use of wood in construction.
The work is related to the on-going Strategic programme for the Forest Sector, led by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.
In Sweden the building code was rewritten as early as in the 1990’s. Before that, building wooden blocks of flats was practically prohibited for 124 years. Rewriting the building code in Sweden drew attention to the possibilities of wood. “I’m glad that the Finnish forest sector has, due to its structural change, started to pay more attention to wood building,” Vapaavuori says.

Eight-storey wooden blocks of flats in Sweden
The most interesting examples Vapaavuori saw in Sweden were wooden eight-storey blocks of flats which were also passive energy houses. The terms ‘passive energy building’ and ‘low-energy building’ refer to the energy consumption of a building. For example, a small-sized dwelling classified as a passive energy house uses at most a quarter of the heating energy of an average small-sized dwelling. The classification ‘low-energy’ means a slightly higher energy use: half of that in an average house at most.
”In energy requirements related to buildings, we’re moving via low-energy houses towards passive energy houses. One lesson I learned in Sweden is that it might be wiser to jump straight to passive energy houses. It seems that in some cases it might be even cheaper to build passive energy houses than low-energy houses,” Vapaavuori says.

Interest in CO2-emissions during construction stage
One reason to increase the use of wood in construction is that a wooden house stores the carbon it contains away from the atmosphere for the duration of its life cycle. This characteristic of wood has become significant due to the climate change – and in short order.
On the other hand, the manufacturing of many construction materials which compete with wood, such as concrete and steel, uses a lot of energy and creates significant carbon dioxide emissions. These construction stage emissions are not, as yet, taken into account in energy saving requirements, as they appear small compared to the energy a building uses during its life cycle.
However, as the energy consumption of a building decreases, the share of carbon dioxide emissions created during the construction stage increases. “The more energy-efficient buildings become, the greater becomes the role of the construction stage,” Vapaavuori says.
Vapaavuori says that the Ministry of the Environment is really investing effort into climate change and energy efficiency issues. “It’s just a question of time when the emissions created during the construction will also be taken on the agenda.”
As to whether wood might be favoured in public procurement policies due to its climate change benefits, Vapaavuori does not want to comment on. It is up to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy to decide on that.
The building code promotes safe construction, and it must be neutral in regard to different materials.
However, Vapaavuori points out that society has other important values besides neutrality in terms of competing materials. “For example, the carbon storage capacity of wooden building materials could be a value that might, with good reason, be taken in to account in the building code,” he says.

By Krista Kimmo