A return to wood - designing sustainable buildings for the future
Natalie Carney in Stuttgart

When it comes to heavy CO2 emitters, many think of transportation or big industry, but the truth is our buildings have a far more significant impact on our environment.

Studies show that our buildings, be they residential, commercial or municipal, account for nearly 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions with the production of the materials used and construction making up around a third of that.

This has been pushing many environmentally conscious urban planners, developers and would-be home owners to think outside the box.


Returning to wood

These days, more and more homes and buildings are being made out of wood, such as the MaxAcht in the German city of Stuttgart.

Unlike many design concepts, which are created by the developer, this award-winning CO2-neutral four-story living complex was the inspiration of its apartment owners.

"It was never a question that we build sustainably, it was just a question of what form," MaxAcht Apartment Owner Anni Endress told CGTN.

The group was then introduced to the concept of wood and was immediately enthusiastic because of its many sustainable qualities.

"Wood is storing CO2. If you produce metal or whatever, you set free CO2," explains Klaus Grübnau, one of the architects who worked with the residents to construct the award-winning design. "Wood has a very warm surface and this is a big advantage in winter because you need less heat. And in summer the wood heats up very, very slowly. So the building has over the year a very regular curve of temperature development."

Grübnau adds that because wood is already an insulating material, walls are not as wide, providing more living space. 

In addition, the wood – taken from a regional forest to reduce transportation emissions – holds together using old junction designs, meaning no glue or possible toxins were used. At the same time, it also allows for easy construction and dismantling.


Buildings of the future

This is exactly what buildings of the future need, says Christine Lemaitre – CEO of the German Sustainable Building Council.

"The real question is sufficiency. How much space do you really need? Because every square meter we don't build is actually the best contribution to reducing CO2 emissions," she says. 

"Then you really need to think how can we build a project that can be adapted over time, especially when we look at housing. Our lives always change – we have kids, kids move out – so we need buildings that can work with that."


Renovating old buildings

Ideally, says Lemaitre, instead of building new, it is always better to maintain an existing building and this is what many are also doing.

There has been a substantial uptick in current homeowners modifying their living spaces to conserve energy and reduce emissions.

"We've installed solar panels, a tank to recollect rain water to be used for our gardens, switched where possible to heating pumps to warm up the water," says Munich resident Daniela Carbone. 

"We have changed the windows and have also changed our habits e.g. washing machine and dishwasher run only when full and there is sun [for solar energy]."


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Klaus Grübnau and his team of architects in Stuttgart have just completed modernizing an old 1950s settlement of existing buildings. This included the addition of an extra floor on many of them to meet the growing need for residential space.

These new floors were built out of wood for the environmental aspect but also to reduce the load on the current, older structure, since wood is also much lighter.

Living spaces were also revitalized with native trees, plants and nesting aids for local biodiversity.

"In the end it's human-centered," says Lemaitre. "It's not just a building as an investment product, but [to ensure] it is really built and maintained to provide a positive and healthy space for the people living, using or even being around it in the city district."

Many are calling this the "new normal" in the building industry – the unavoidable race to produce living and work spaces that future generations can comfortably use for decades to come.

A return to wood - designing sustainable buildings for the future

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