A question that oft troubles the architect as well as the environmentalist is the sustainable quotient of timber use in construction. Does use of timber denote depleting green cover and increasing global warming? Or does it actually reduce the carbon footprint by offering a sustainable mode of construction? Debaters on both sides have their own point of view and each leaves the listener only more confused.
A seminar conducted by the Indian Institute of Architects on wood in architecture during the recently concluded India Wood 2016 exhibition, aimed to dispel some of the commonly held notions on wood while throwing open to the audience the various ways in which this natural product can prove to be the sustainable answer.
Speaking on use of wood in architecture, Architect Dr Jimmy C S Lim of Jimmy Lim Design and winner of the Aga Khan award for his project Salinger House, Malaysia, espoused the high renewable quality of wood and its use since ancient times as well as wood continuing to be the most advanced building material to date.
Pointing that ancient buildings used a lot of timber, with timber frames manifesting in the structures, he drew attention to some of the captivating Tibetan houses constructed in wood as well as the Chinese architecture depicting ornate intricate detailing in structure. “Timber structures are currently used in New Zealand and Southern parts of Australia”, he added. “The brick structures of the old apartments built in Sydney also used plenty of timber for walls, ceiling and floors. Timber is not new, but we have forgotten how to use it.”
Referring to the Christchurch building, Lim pointed that the timber used within was structured to prevent damage from earthquakes. He drew attention to similar timber houses in Bali, the Malay traditional houses, the timber houses in Japan. From the Indian scene, he pointed to the traditional houses in Cochin that used massive quantities of timber in construction.
“The whole idea of architecture design when you use timber is the need to work in harmony with nature”, he stated. Transforming this traditional practice of timber use to contemporary use is the challenge according to Lim.
The Salinger House which brought him the Aga Khan award, is a post and beam timber structure raised on stilts. Built in traditional Malay architecture, it incorporates modern sensitivities. Built totally by hand by traditional Malay carpenters, the only machinery used was a small cement mixer.
Advocating the use of timber in construction was also Architect Gopal Shankar, a Padma Shri awardee for his green architecture. Shankar is credited with building the first sustainable township in the country and the largest earth building in the world, measuring over 6 lakh square feet. Talking about timber use, Shankar stated, “You have to internalise the beauty of the material, experience the material before you take it forward as an architectural vocabulary as this makes the difference in architecture.”
According to him, timber scored high on all parameters, in terms of durability, climate resistance, local availability as well as sustainability. Referring to the use of local trees such as mango as timber, he stated, “when cured in water for three to four months, the wood is as strong as teak.” He added that wood has been traditionally used as a natural insulator.
“Being 100 per cent renewable, besides being recyclable, wood counters the unsustainable interventions that we as architects are responsible for. Use of plantation wood, recycled wood addresses the carbon footprint, cutting down on the carbon emissions. In marshy lands, the best foundation for buildings is coconut piles as it does not deteriorate in water.” He further added that the economic potential of regenerated timber has defined the economies of many countries like Myanmar where there are plenty of fallow lands.