Humble Timber: Building towards a carbon-neutral future

What will buildings be made of in 2030?


As we are confronting the major challenge of providing housing while decarbonising construction, transitioning to timber buildings is an immediate solution. However, like most transitions, this is not an easy one. 


In Finland, a 9-actor alliance has convened to put together an ambitious agenda around timber construction. The alliance is called Humble Timber. The project, led by Demos Helsinki, follows the Humble Governance model: it brings together a broad spectrum of building industry stakeholders with the intention to build tangible solutions around the transition to carbon-neutral construction. 


Carbon-neutral construction is essential


Carbon emissions caused by the construction in Finland amount to 7% of the country’s total carbon footprint. Of that 7%, the production of building materials — namely concrete and steel — adds up to almost 70%


Although recent research suggests that it is possible to have low carbon concrete and steel, this would likely take years with concerted effort and incentives. In the meantime, city populations are growing and buildings must rise to meet them. To stay within carbon neutrality targets, control potential carbon spikes and provide long-term carbon sinks, timber is the only material backed by evidence that can already promise climate-neutral construction. 


The biggest challenge in timber transition


The research on timber construction as a climate solution for the industry is vast. Despite timber’s many benefits, substantial challenges exist in the Finnish case. 


The biggest challenge (although not the only one) is a typical chicken-and-egg situation that affects the material’s supply and demand: 

  • Finnish cities have ambitious housing targets. (It is important to note that, in Finland, cities have a planning monopoly.)
  • Yet, to include wooden buildings in their plans, cities need to know that there is enough capacity — both in production and skills. 
  • Uncertainty on there not being enough capacity leads to insufficient long-term demand signals. 
  • Lack of demand leads to companies not investing in timber.
  • As a result, cities can’t plan wooden buildings unless they are sure they will be built; and wooden buildings cannot be built unless cities commit to planning them. 


This sounds like a deadlock. But, through the Humble Timber alliance, we hope to prove that it doesn’t need to be. To escape deadlock, cities, companies, and other stakeholders must develop the relevant capacities in parallel. In other words, there is a way to transform Finland’s building practices: through inclusive and intentional collaboration. 


Humble Timber: building a coalition to solve the challenge

Building demand and supply hand-in-hand is not easy. With varying perspectives and interests at play, collaboration between stakeholders can be challenging. Demos Helsinki’s Humble Governance model was designed with these complex cases in mind. It creatively engages all alliance members and offers incentives to reach their shared goal: to build tangible solutions toward a carbon-neutral future. 


The first step towards realising this long-term and high impact shared goal was to identify broad goals that all alliance members agree on. In the humble model, this is the thin consensus phase. Through a series of initial workshops, alliance members were able to determine three points of common ground:


  • The pricing of timber construction needs to be competitive compared to other materials.
  • New solutions around timber have to increase productivity, decrease price-related risks and incentivise the end-users to pay. 
  • Sustainable forestry needs to be at the heart of the planning and building processes.


These points of common ground are enough to breed trust and collaboration, which is essential to lead into the second phase of the humble model: devolved problem-solving. With thin consensus as a starting point, the Humble Timber alliance can now establish a strong sense of purpose in the building industry, encouraging meaningful cross-sector collaboration and speeding up the adoption of low-carbon actions. 


Next steps: devolve problem-solving


We have taken the first steps along the humble governance path and started systematically creating solutions to overcome the areas with the most friction that are impeding the transition to timber construction. The alliance has thus identified solutions in five categories. Developing these solutions will contribute to stronger collaboration in timber construction. Stakeholders will now form groups that will contribute in their own capacity and with their expertise in developing solutions in these five categories: 


  1. Creating long-term demand signals
  2. Developing the construction processes’ efficiency
  3. Increasing the ambition level in steering mechanisms
  4. Creating the required capabilities with education
  5. Leading with examples


Together with the alliance and the humble approach, we define and evaluate the right solutions while engaging the actors responsible for advancing them. Meaningful cross-sector collaboration is the key to a responsible and transformative construction industry.


What will buildings be made of in 2030? 

In our humble opinion? Timber. 


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Want to know more? 


Links to all the research referenced in this article 


Feature Image: Sarah Worth / Unsplash