As a modern building material, wood offers exceptional possibilities. Its potential for engineering and infinite shapes is limitless and it shows additional benefits as one of the most environmentally sustainable building materials in the world. So said the introduction to the fourth Wood Conference held this February at the CTICC in Cape Town. Architects, engineers, quantity surveyors and timber experts were invited by organisers HWZ International to discuss the global value and sustainability of using wood in the building industry.

A number of Issues pertaining to wood, forestry and the entire value chain that is based upon them in South Africa came to the fore during this conference, the most imperative of which is the controversial Exit Policy passed by government in 2001 which has led to thousands of hectares of perfectly viable forestry land left lying fallow and in limbo.

“The brief scenario is that the government was advised that half the commercially forested land in the Cape was not viable and should be deforested. This ‘exit’ process was set under way in 2001. Then in 2008 after the government’s own investigation, it was decided to partially reverse this policy, allowing for ¾ of the forested land to continue locking carbon away, creating jobs and providing a local, sustainable, renewable building resource for South Africa. This was the right decision, but for some reason the paper has not yet been passed in Parliament six years down the line and so the original call for the deforestation of 44 000 hectares of beautiful forest is still being implemented today,” explained Pieter Silberbauer, MD of Rustic Homes in his presentation to over 400 delegates at the conference.

Pieter, who is a passionate advocate of the forest, says that we are losing an industry that not only led the world but also fits in perfectly with the government’s National Development Plan. “It is critical that the government understands the vital importance of a sustainable forestry industry in South Africa.”

Due to the exit policy, sawmills are closing and already timber products that used to be locally readily available are being imported. Long distance travel impacts on the Embodied Energy (carbon) of a building material and can be taken as the total primary energy consumed (carbon released over its life cycle). “Importing less dense radiata pine from New Zealand or South America is an option but hardly sustainable. And a great shame as P. radiata, grown in the Western Cape, achieves a combination of quality and strength that is among the highest of radiata pine grown anywhere in the world,” says Pieter.

“Deforestation presently contributes a staggering 17.5% to total greenhouse gas emissions, global energy being 26% percent by comparison. Stopping deforestation would be our easiest and cheapest means to effect a quick and significant reduction in atmospheric carbon and to protect biodiversity,” said Vernon Collis, Architect Engineer at the same conference.

Globally we have a 15-year window to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million. South Africa produces about 9 tonnes of carbon per person a year, which is more than double that of China for example, and is due mainly to our reliance on coal power. “A shift to well-managed timber plantations supplying locked-in carbon to the construction industry, replacing high carbon-producing cement, steel, aluminium and brick ceramics, could make a significant contribution to meeting this target,” he continued.

“To build in timber grown – by renewable solar energy – in the factory called the “forest” is the best form of sustainable building,” concludes Pieter.

The challenge remains to change the construction industry’s perceptions and culture in order to create a demand for this material, as presently exists in environmentally progressive places such as the US east coast, the Baltic States, EU, Canada and New Zealand. The Western Cape is the only place in the world where the department of forestry has a policy of deforestation in place. It is also a fact that the Western Cape will never have a Green Economy if deforestation continues and this policy is not reversed.