Opinion: How can architects influence carbon-intensive supply chains?

Wilf Meynell, Director of London based Studio Bark Architects, on the urgent need for the built environment industry to use more sustainable materials such as timber.

by Wilf Meynell 09 August 2023

Image credit: Tom Joy

Making a Stand demands playfulness, but also offers a place for natural reflection, presenting itself as a vertical stack of timber in the busy City Square in Leeds. The sculpture, a co-creation with artist Michael Pinsky, provides a synaptic bridge between standing trees and one of the most ubiquitous household materials; wood. For six months as part of LEEDS 2023 - the city’s transformational year of culture – City Square will be a place where the natural world and the urban realm collide, linked through the supply chain that connects one to the other.

Studio Bark was founded through a collective intrigue in the possibilities of timber. Our first project nearly ten years ago, rigorously followed the supply chain of Western Red Cedar from standing timber, through felling, stacking, processing and cladding. This close relationship with resources has in the most part been lost in recent decades, due to the rise and ease of global supply chains.

Designers, makers and builders are often disconnected from the provenance of the materials they specify and use. Through this artwork, we were keen to explore why approximately 80% of the sawn softwood used in the UK is currently imported, whilst also stress testing the capabilities of the UK Forestry industry. The sculpture demands a timber that is tall, girthy, dead knot-free and hits a high structural grade, whilst being durable to the elements. Not many timber species living in the UK can do all of these things and even fewer UK forests can supply such a specification.

The Douglas Fir Trees employed in the construction of 'Making A Stand' have been meticulously chosen from sustainable forests within the UK, where timber is specifically grown for construction purposes.

For a typical Construction project, a likely supply route for timber in the UK may follow: Growing > Felling > Transport > Planking > Processing > Transport > Merchant > Transport > Fabricator > Transport > Site > Use > Demolition> Transport > End of Life (landfill/incineration)

The further down the supply chain, the more bespoke the material becomes. We were keen to pause the supply chain after the initial planking phase, the point at which the resource has the most possible future uses and retains a high resource value. With light touch processing, designed to have the least impact on the timber, the fins are then stacked vertically to create a monumental artwork which people are encouraged to walk through and explore.

Each Douglas Fir fin can be traced back to the precise stump in the forest and a unique code will help us to track it for many years to come. Working with fabricators Stage One, we aim to secure a long and useful future for these majestic Douglas Fir fins.

Globally we lose approximately 50 football pitches of forest to illegal logging every minute. We need to change our consumerist relationship with our forests if we are to slow the climate crisis. Trees play a vital role as both carbon sinks and havens for biodiversity. A well-managed species rich productive woodland can deliver both of these desired outcomes, but there is also a time, and importantly, a place for naturally regenerated forests. The common rhetoric pitching conservation against production is often too polarised and we believe that both can and should coexist.

The alternative to using timber in construction, generally steel or concrete, has a much greater impact on the natural world. For example, delivering making a stand in steel with a concrete foundation would have resulted in over 100 tonnes of Co2.

Making a Stand does not offer a simple ‘oven-ready’ solution to reducing the impact of construction to a theoretical point of climate neutrality. We hope that it ‘stands’ to illuminate complexities of land use, resource use and the supply chains that connect them. The industry, the public and politicians must face this challenging reality if we are to turn the tide on the climate crisis.





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