Back and Forth to the Woods
Flying to my hometown Helsinki from abroad gives always the same views. First comes water, a lot of water, then comes the islands, the great archipelago of Finnish southern coastline. Then comes the signs of civilization, roads and buildings. And then comes forest, forest and forest, patched with some lakes, all the way to Lapland.
The old, worn-out saying goes that forest is the gold of the North. This is turning very different type of truth as we move towards sixth wave of development. Old industrial ideas what is and what is not possible to do with timber and fiber is simply not anymore valid in the future. We need to leap for the future and find wood in a new way. New materials and solutions like cross-laminate timber will pave the way for the renaissance of wood use in buildings. Prefabricated wooden homes are on the way. New research on how to use cellulose as textile material is on the way. As growing cotton is highly water consuming, this might be also something world needs in the future.
Look at Vancouver based architect Michael Green, who has ambitious ideas: he wants to build 34-story wooden buildings, even though we are not currently building higher than 4 storey building from wood. There are lots of good arguments: steel and concrete stand for almost 10% of human related greenhouse gas emissions. With wood you actually start to reverse the process by binding carbon to the buildings. In the coming two decades, cities need 3 billion new apartments for people to live. Why not thinking that meeting this challenge could provide a way to fight climate change at the same time? At least swedes have been working on some interesting solutions for these type of challenges: they have been testing wooden pods as the future of college dorms
I am privileged to cooperate with one of the largest forest company, Finnish-Swedish Stora Enso. They are taking great steps in thinking and applying wood and fiber for new products and services. Their packages, for instance, are increasingly replacing non-renewable materials. Various wood products are becoming commonplace in buildings. In tests, wood stands serious fire much better than steel: after 30 minutes of burning, wood has lost only 25% strength while steel has lost 90%. Stora Enso’s slogan they like to use goes like this: “Everything that’s made with fossil-based materials today can be made from a tree tomorrow”. That is a bold statement but Stora Enso seems to be working hard to make that happen.
I am also a part of this movement with a start-up I am a part of. Fibertus is a company that wants to make a revolution in creating a product that is light but strong and totally recyclable by using wood-based fibers. The technique for the process has been patented in US, Canada and European Union. Together with partners we are now making first industrial prototypes of the interior panel as our first product for the market.
Wood has some many dimensions, some of them physiological or symbolical, some spiritual. In wooden buildings, you really carry the fingerprints of mother nature into the building. In Finland, kindergarten buildings are increasing made of timber. Without exception, everybody who has the privilege to stay in the wooden buildings like their atmosphere.
Villa Mairea, to be found in Noormarkku Finland, is one of the best known private buildings of the world. Designed by Finland's greatest architect Alvar Aalto, it is known of particular innovative use of wooden materials. It is a truly awesome experience just be inside this house and sense its glory.
All in all, there seems to be a certain boom for wooden buildings and natural fiber based products right now. Globally, a huge effort for reforestation and continuous efforts to replace fossil based products –together with changing agricultural practices more sustainable – is probably the only way to fight back climate change in time. We should do everything to move more swiftly towards that direction.