There’s nivor a lad like my lad drives the the staithes on Tyne,
He’s coaly black on workdays, but on holidays he’s fine.
I went to look at Dunston Staiths on the River Tyne recently. It remains an impressive piece of engineering and is reputed to be the largest wooden structure in Europe.
From this wooden pier, coal from the north Durham coalfields was loaded on to ships and exported from the Tyne.
It seemed appropriate to visit the Staiths because I was travelling on to Bergen, Norway, to see the final phase of the construction of the world’s tallest wooden building, a 14-storey block of flats being built in the city centre on the side of the fjord.
We have been building wooden framed houses in Europe for centuries, but most houses in England are brick and block. While elsewhere in Europe, as in Scotland, timber frame is more common, it has not been used in tall buildings. It is the recent breakthrough in the strength that can be achieved with laminated timbers that makes it now possible to take timber frame buildings up to ten storeys and beyond. Layers of timber, glued together under pressure, can now achieve the equivalent structural strength of steel.
My visit to see Treet (tree) the world’s tallest timber building taking shape was at the invitation of the Norwegian Labour Party. On being introduced to Ole Herbrand Kleppe from the corporate housing association BOB he told me to “think Lego”, given the construction is essentially three buildings, each of five storeys, constructed on top of each other. The building will be 52.8m high and contain 62 apartments. Interestingly, they build to EU standards in Norway even though they are not in the EU.
The internal individual apartments are made under factory conditions in Estonia and then imported in batches by boat and craned into the building, hence the Lego bit.
This is all good news. It is good news for the climate because the more we build out of wood the more we embed carbon, helping tackle climate change. The structural wood alone used in the construction of the tower block in Bergen contains 1,000 tons of CO2, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of 100 people. Labour in government would get 200,000 homes built a year, which opens up a huge potential of storing more carbon if new homes are built out of wood.
If we are going to build more with wood, and make more with wood, and we should, then we need to plant more trees. Government has already agreed this, it just hasn’t happened. The North East can be a beneficiary from every aspect of the ‘wood chain’.
There are jobs to be had in planting trees and in managing woodland. While we wait for them to grow we can walk in them, ride in them, and relax in them.
Forests have proven health benefits both mental and physical. Then, when they have grown, we need to maximize their use which is where house-building hugely extends the storing of carbon way beyond the growing span of the tree; 40 years growing, 80 years or more in a timber- framed house.
You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out there are lots of jobs to be had in the wood supply chain and we need to get more of them here in the North East.
We have a good few already; Egger making wood panels at Hexham and SCA making tissue products at Prudhoe are both big employers in the region.
But an expanding forestry sector could mean more training courses at Kirkley Hall, Northumberland and Houghall College, Durham. Building more wooden- framed houses would be good news for Robertson’s at Seaham who are keen to re-open their mothballed operation next to the port.
I would like to see the world’s tallest building being in the North East rather than Norway. I’d like to see Nissan using wood fibre in their car production, as other car manufactures are doing. Our universities could explore how we might use wood fibre as a replacement for oil based products?
Most importantly the North East could get in first on those new jobs before anyone else in the world. Innovation; we’ve done it before, let’s do it again.