The ARC Research Hub to Advance Timber for Australia’s Future Built Environment (ARC Advance Timber Hub) aims to enable an advanced manufacturing transformation of Australia’s timber and construction industries, developing a roadmap to change that unlocks substantial industry and social value.
The ARC Advance Timber Hub aims to stimulate rapid growth of timber innovation in the ~$80b per year mid-rise building market , which could transform Australia’s timber processing sector, construction sector, the experience of building occupants, and even the life of the buildings themselves. Large-scale advanced manufacture of innovative engineered wood products (EWP) provides an opportunity for the Australian timber industry to shift production up the value chain, whilst simultaneously being a critical driver for the building construction sector in Australia to significantly reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to be on the path to net zero by 2050 [2, 3].
The Hub brings together national expertise across the breadth of advanced manufacturing opportunity that EWP innovation makes possible. It will build on successful collaborations that have stimulated new investment in advanced manufacturing efficiency gains , and demonstrated substantial opportunity for greater forestry resource utilisation through value chain optimisation . The scope of research will address the full spectrum of engineering and architectural objectives in decision making along the value chain. It will also tackle a billion-dollar opportunity in construction cost savings if the uptake of prefabrication methods grows to international best practice [6,7], integrating advanced prefabrication research capability and leading skills in autonomous robots for site installation of prefabricated components.
The recently completed (2016 to 2021) ARC Research Hub for Advanced Solutions to Transform Tall Timber Buildings (ARC Future Timber Hub) demonstrated the viability of substituting EWP for steel and concrete in mid-rise buildings to drive down construction costs, improve occupant satisfaction and deliver healthy, low-carbon buildings. Extensive stakeholder engagement indicated that a technical research agenda to motivate manufacturing investment will not be sufficient to realise the opportunity on offer. It will be just as important to motivate demand for EWP in mid-rise buildings, which requires research to demonstrate the benefits to building clients and motivate broader social demand for greater use of timber. The latter is considered necessary to expedite the complex package of policy changes required across the supply chain, from forestry to building design.
The new ARC Advance Timber Hub will integrate much broader disciplines (engineering and architecture; environmental, behavioural, business and economic sciences) with expertise across the full value chain to overcome systemic constraints to change in the conservative timber and construction sectors. The Hub aims to motivate change through proactive, deep engagement that expedites learning across the spectrum of stakeholders involved.
The ARC Advance Timber Hub has brought together interdisciplinary experts from industry, government, and academia with expertise in understanding innovative technology solutions, national transformative benefits, and the processes of change. Delivering on the six listed objectives implies a complex agenda that moves well beyond the technical scope of previous research. The organisation of Hub scope and teams is designed to enable the multi-faceted engagement that will be required – across research disciplines, partner expertise, industry and policy stakeholders. This will guide the research agenda to deliver on the six objectives:
Develop proven product systems that meet the complex mix of performance objectives required to grow and sustain client demand for timber innovation in mid-rise timber buildings.
- new composite and hybrid elements
- timber building performance for occupants
- performance of timber building components
- circular design principles for repurposing and extending the life of timber buildings
Objective 1 Context
The majority of Australian midrise performance research has been the narrowly focused on engineering technologies necessary to allay concerns that EWP can effectively comply with serviceability, durability and fire performance requirements. However, rapid market uptake would require not just proof of feasibility in isolated contexts, but that EWP innovation can deliver on the full spectrum of engineering and architectural performance objectives that drive the decision making of manufacturers, construction clients, building clients and designers. A stronger evidence base is required to demonstrate where that performance is likely to exceed what is possible with conventional alternatives, and the degree to which the opportunities are relevant across the very different resource and climate types across Australia. Furthermore, the stark gap between typical design (50yr) and actual (20-30yr) building service life in Australia introduces a new set of performance criteria for consideration. By reducing reliance on monolithic construction systems, EWPs bring new opportunity for buildings to be operated as transformable assets to leverage benefits in two ways:
- Controlled recovery of timber components for repurposing or as energy generation feedstock;
- Even more substantial benefits could be realised if innovative design of removable EWP provides future flexibility to modify buildings as owner/occupant requirements change, thereby extending the service-life and reducing the life-cycle costs (LCC – $; carbon footprint) of mid-rise buildings and more generally, Australia’s built environment.
Demonstrate the social, environmental, and economic benefits of large-scale increases in timber use in the built environment, at both regional and national scales.
- long-term, macro-scale benefits
- value adding for regional development
- carbon reduction across the life cycle of mid-rise timber buildings – address life-cycle-analysis and greenhouse-gas criteria
Objective 2 Context
While the prospect of broader environmental and socio-economic benefits is well established, there is insufficient analysis on the scale and regional distribution of those impacts in an Australian context. This limits prospects for compelling local policy makers to reduce barriers to the many sectoral changes required (forestry, manufacturing, construction) for rapid growth of EWP manufacturing. For example, while international research clearly establishes that greater use of wood products will bring net reductions in the carbon footprint of the built environment [8-10] the few Australian studies of large-scale timber adoption are hampered by a lack of transparency on the contentious carbon accounting protocols used for assessing the full life cycle of wood products. Accounting mechanisms for demonstrating positive contributions towards a more circular economy are even less mature . The challenges with confirming macro-economic benefits are similar in nature, requiring systematic scenario analysis using specialised models and sufficient attention to the most relevant regional and sectoral details.
Demonstrate that manufacturing innovation across the supply chain creates new value opportunities.
- advanced manufacture of timber components and systems
- digital design tools for prefabrication & construction automation
- high value engineered wood products from low value fibre
Demonstrate that connected and innovative value chains can amplify value for all stakeholders.
- tools for product optimisation
- smart manufacture of timber building systems
Objective 3 & 4 Context
While the scope of ARC Future Timber Hub research into timber manufacturing and value chain innovation was limited to some degree, it clearly demonstrated the potential for such analysis to direct how investment might best be targeted. Furthermore, it built important fundamental engineering knowledge, validated product inventory models, and a resource evaluation framework that addresses the strongly location-specific elements of any change to timber resource utilisation and manufacturing practices. Translating that into a compelling case for large scale manufacturing investment requires an expanded scope. Manufacturing advances require further improvements to underlying lamination processes, and to expand the scope downstream to the prefabrication and onsite construction stages. Value- chain modelling needs to extend beyond the small niche of current EWP products and the Class 1 building market that dominates Australian timber flows, incorporating new innovations in product typology, the implications of large-scale growth in the forestry and timber sectors, and better characterisation of post-fabricator value flows under conventional and novel assumptions about building service life. Furthermore, the optimal opportunity to amplify value likely requires co-optimisation of fibre and product allocation across the Class 1 and mid-rise markets.
Develop a roadmap to change that is embraced by industry and policy makers.
- policy development
- identify barriers, enablers, and motivator
Incorporate timber innovation into exemplar projects, showcasing the commercial and regulatory feasibility of undertaking the exemplars.
Objective 5 & 6 Context
The complex mix of changes required, spanning multiple sectors, barriers and policy domains, brings the prospect of both complementary and conflicting stakeholder objectives. A thorough understanding of stakeholder constraints, beyond those of just the Partner Organisations, can help steer the technological and system change research towards recommendations that have maximum impact. Early and ongoing engagement with that broad set of stakeholders provides a platform to identify steps that will motivate change across all involved. Given the conservative nature of the construction sector and its regulatory environment, translation of the research findings into commercial demonstration projects also has an important role in motivating change.
- “Australia’s emissions projections 2020” – Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, Australian Government
- White Paper: How timber construction supports the economy and contributes to Net Zero by 2050”; https://timefortimber.org/wpcontent/uploads/2021/05/Time-for-Timber-insurance-industry-white-paper-FINAL.pdf
- “Impact of continuous drying on key production and performance criteria of engineered wood structural elements” https://www.hyne.com.au/article/264/hyne-s-continuous-drying-kiln-officially-operating
- “The potential for underutilised timber for the built environment” Mills, H; Baber, K and Gattas, J; Proceedings Pacific Timber Engineering Conference 2019, Brisbane Australia
- AMGC (2020) Prefab Innovation Hub: Feasibility Study. Australian Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC)
- Teh SH, Wiedmann T, Schinabeck J, Moore S (2017) Replacement scenarios for construction materials based on economy-wide hybrid LCA. In: Ding L, Fiorito F, Osmond P (eds) International High-Performance Built Environment Conference – a Sustainable Built Environment Conference 2016 Series (sbe16), Ihbe 2016. Elsevier Science Bv, Amsterdam, pp 179–189
- Andersen CE, Rasmussen FN, Habert G, Birgisdottir H (2021) Embodied GHG Emissions of Wooden Buildings-Challenges of Biogenic Carbon Accounting in Current LCA Methods. Front Built Environ 7:729096. https://doi.org/10.3389/fbuil.2021.729096
- Cowie AL, Berndes G, Bentsen NS, et al (2021) Applying a science-based systems perspective to dispel misconceptions about climate effects of forest bioenergy. GCB Bioenergy 13:1210–1231. https://doi.org/10.1111/gcbb.12844
- Parchomenko A, Nelen D, Gillabel J, Rechberger H (2019) Measuring the circular economy – A Multiple Correspondence Analysis of 63 metrics. J Clean Prod 210:200–216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.10.357