Timber: the construction material of the future - Briab - Brand, Risk & Säkerhet


Timber: the construction material of the future

How can we solve the problems of climate change, while increasing numbers want to live in cities where space to build is at a premium, and where a fire can have disastrous consequences? We spoke to Susanne Rudenstam, Director of Sveriges Träbyggnadskansli (Swedish Office for Wood Construction), to discuss issues such as climate change, fire security, digitalization, and – wood.

Briab intervjuar Susanne Rudenstam brandskydd

At Sweden’s annual Almedalen Week, the discussions cover a wide range of topics, and this year one of the most important ones is urban planning. Sustainability, innovation, productivity and not least digitalization are areas with enormous opportunities and challenges. Michael Strömgren, our Public Affairs Manager, spoke to Susanne Rudenstam, who is beating the drum for one of the most exciting strategies for the future – building with wood.

Michael Strömgren: Timber construction is gaining ground, and in Sweden you have a key role in this. But before we get into that, tell us a bit about your background.

Susanne Rudenstam: I’m neither an architect nor an engineer. My background is in marketing and economy in the TV and computer games industry, where I worked with marketing, PR and lobbying. But for the past five years I’ve been at Träbyggnadskansliet.

M.S.: These are exciting times with the growth of digitalization, there are many similarities to gaming.

S.R.: Yes, a lot of people have asked how I can move from that sector to timber construction. It might sound like two completely different worlds, but in fact they have more in common than you would think. They both are very much driven by new technology, and both have the innovators role, which is really exciting.

M.S.: Tell us more about Träbyggnadskansliet and what you do there.

S.R: Träbyggnadskansliet is a collaboration between the saw mill industry and the wood processing industry. Its mission is to encourage the use of wood and timber construction systems in the building industry. It focuses mainly on apartment buildings and large structures such as school, office and logistics buildings.

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“Wood construction is absolutely essential if we are to achieve the climate change goals we have committed to”


M.S: Why is wood construction important for Sweden? Why do we need to build using wood?

S.R: On a large scale, wood construction isn’t only important, it’s absolutely essential if we are to achieve the climate change goals we have committed to when we said we would be fossil-free by 2045, and when we signed the Paris Agreement. Climate change is probably the most important issue, but there is also a need for modernization in the construction industry. It’s about building in a new way that is much more efficient and has a strong focus on resources, and where we can increase productivity, rather than the opposite, which is what we see today.

M.S: Fire protection and wood are, of course, related to one another. Sweden is a country of timber construction, and we have a strong industry. And for climate and environmental reasons, we are increasing timber construction, and we see an increased interest, with investments in new factories in a short period of time. But, speaking of timber construction and fire protection, how important is it to you?

S.R: With wood construction, good fire protection is the most important matter of them all, and always has been. We now have the possibility to build in wood because we solved that problem. It was when we joined the EU in 1995 that things got going, as we got function-based rather than material-based requirements in our legislation. At that time, the industry had to solve fire-related matters, but also other technical matters, so that we could show that we also had suitable systems for wood construction. It’s still an important issue where development is ongoing – all stakeholders are working on advancing fire protection and the solutions for building with wood.


“Good fire protection is the most important matter of them all, and always has been”


M.S: The timber construction industry is well advanced in terms of industrialized construction. A number of new plants have been developed, so the method is experiencing strong growth. Timber construction is often referred to as modern and smart, but what does industrialized construction mean in reality?

S.R: If you take the example of fire protection, the industrial process is that you have a huge focus on iterative knowledge, on learning and on continual improvement. Here, fire protection is a perfect example – the wood construction industry is constantly progressing, so that the systems we build with are continually being refined at the plants. Many of our members who build using industrial methods, build inside their plants. But it’s not really about whether you use automation, or build in a plant, it’s about having an industrial process and that you’re process-oriented rather than project-oriented, and have a focus on flow within the building process. There you can see that repetition and experience are the keys to developing and assuring quality.


“Repetition and experience are the keys to developing and assuring quality”


M.S: Here there’s a huge potential for Sweden, especially regarding the export of timber construction. What is most important, if we are to succeed in other markets?

S.R: It’s working with knowledge transfer and the multiplication of knowledge in the timber construction sector. It is very deep, but narrow, and for us the challenge is to ensure that this knowledge is distributed – in the Swedish and the international industries. Wherever you go in the world there’s a huge interest in building in wood, often in response to climate change, which is a megatrend. But it also comes from another megatrend – urbanization, and that we’re building in existing built environments. Here it’s about off-site construction, prefabrication, and that we can get a lot finished at other locations than the building site. This is also one of the driving factors for wood.


Generally, the industry has hopped on the digitalization train, but the train isn’t going very fast yet”


That takes us to digitalization, which is of course linked to industrialized construction. Digitalization in the building industry involves a massive shift; many stakeholders are talking about it, and are starting to invest in it. We can see a huge shift on the way, simply because the productivity and quality benefits are so large. Has the wood construction industry hopped onto the digitalization train?

S.R: I’d say that generally, the industry has hopped on the digitalization train, but the train isn’t going very fast yet. Some parts of the value chain have made more progress, but I think the wood industry is well positioned to develop its processes, and to fully utilize the potential of digitalization. So if we’re standing on the platform now, I see a lot of scope to quickly speed things up, but as I said: the digitalization process, really achieving its full potential, is about working through the entire value chain, and that every stakeholder makes use of digitalization and genuinely becomes digital.

briab Bimfire Tools

M.S: In fire protection contexts, we’ve seen a huge impact in the wake of the Grenfell fire. There we see a worrying trend, where the U.K. is partly leaving the principle of functional requirements and material neutrality. For the construction of residential buildings higher than 18 meters, it is prohibited since last year to use flammable materials in external walls, which also affects wood construction – even though in the Grenfell case, the culprit was plastic-based materials. Can we Swedes learn anything from the developments in the U.K.?

S.R: Yes, I think so. What happened in the U.K. has had effects all over the world, and especially in Europe it has initiated a large number of processes. From various perspectives, i.e. government bodies and other stakeholders, we can both understand and learn from it, so, yes, we can and must learn from Grenfell. That tower was a concrete-steel structure with plastic and aluminum cladding, there was no wood anywhere, but it was a flammable material where they weren’t on top of the design or which materials were used. That’s the core question: ensuring we have quality assurances, and that we construct our buildings exactly as they are designed, so we can secure the quality throughout the design and building process.


… the development of fire protection, with digitalization and industrial construction,

is a real formula for success for Sweden”


M.S: What do we need to work on most, what do we have to do, to achieve this?

S.R.: The challenges of wood construction are that the things we design and do at our plants, we are completely on top of that. We know exactly how each step is done and we quality-assure them. But in the transition from the wood construction industry to the traditional building industry out on the site, that is, the last 10 per cent, it’s important to have the same quality control at that stage too, and that installation and all the other things you do out at the site are also done well.

M.S: It’s time to round off. What would you like to emphasize?

S.R.: Finally I would like to say that continuing to work with the development of fire protection, with digitalization and industrial construction, is a real formula for success for Sweden. As a country, we could sell it abroad. There’s a lot of demand, and we have an excellent position. We are Volvo, we are safe.


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