Wood is a perfect material for an age of climate change. It is made of carbon, absorbed by the tree as it grew and then safely locked away for the long term. Wooden furniture or wooden buildings serve as a carbon store, and using wood can make a new building carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Provided it comes from sustainably managed forests, there’s a major role for wood in sustainable construction.
Wooden buildings are being constructed at a new scale as well, thanks to relatively recent techniques that are capable of replacing the role of structural steel. Among these pioneering wooden buildings is Hyperion in Bordeaux. It’s named after the world’s tallest living tree, or at least the one that we humans are aware of, which stands 115 metres tall in Redwood National Park. The tower is the tallest wooden building in France, and it includes offices, apartments and social housing. Apartments include balconies and hanging gardens, reminding me a little of the Bosco Verticale in Milan.
When completed in 2021, the building will quite literally set a new standard for low carbon building in France, serving as a reference case for a new sustainable building accreditation.
One of the reasons I wanted to mention this building is not just the specific example that it sets, but because it’s an opportunity to highlight wider iniatives to encourage timber construction in France. Paris is hosting the summer Olympics in 2024, and as part of its commitment to a low carbon event, the city specified that natural building materials should be used as much as possible.
Building on that, the French government announced earlier this year that any new public building will have to be at least 50% natural materials from 2022 onwards. That means timber, but also leaves room for hemp, straw or other materials. It uses the procurement power of the public sector to commission wooden buildings, developing expertise within the construction sector and making the techniques cheaper and more readily available. (See Exeter council, who did the same thing with Passive House standards in Britain.) The announcement also included 100 new urban farms and a new scheme to create resilient eco-districts, which I’ll have to come back to another time.