Timber homes are a good investment for the future

A block of flats built of wood in Viikki, a district in the Finnish capital, Helsinki. Image: By courtesy of Hans Koistinen/Metsä Wood

Timber homes could do more than just save energy, and stall climate change. They could be a sound investment.

LONDON, 31 May, 2021 − Finnish engineers have an encouraging message for householders: wood is good, something worth thinking about for the future. They don’t just mean that a wooden structure preserves carbon that would otherwise become a greenhouse gas again. They mean that timber homes are a worthwhile investment.

That is because they studied real estate sales in two suburbs of Helsinki, between 1999 and 2018. They found that multi-storied timber-built homes changed hands at 8.85% more in value than apartments and houses made of bricks and mortar, or concrete and steel.

The sample is small − timber homes added up to only 2.23% of all sales − and the housing market is not simple. But the results are clear: home-buyers think wood is good.

“At first glance, multi-storey housing blocks made out of wood appear to be cheaper on average but when we look more closely at the data and control for location, we see that it’s economically advantageous to use wood,” said Seppo Junilla, of Aalto University.

“Building with wood is essentially the only way for cities to store carbon”

“The results show that wood-based housing is almost 10% more expensive per square metre than concrete-based housing in the same areas.”

He and colleagues report in the journal Environmental Research: Infrastructure and Sustainability that the global building and construction sector now accounts for almost 40% of global greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile more than half the planet now lives in cities, and governments have begun to commit to drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

A standing forest represents stored atmospheric carbon. A felled tree is potentially carbon on the way back to carbon dioxide again − unless that timber can be used and preserved.

Finland’s Ministry of Environment aims by 2025 to have 45% of new multi-storied buildings made from wood. The technology already has its fans: researchers have more than once proposed that wood would be a sound basis for high-density housing while at the same time making an active  contribution to helping to slow climate change driven by global heating fired by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and cement manufacture.

Eco-friendly preference

The first step is to encourage builders and purchasers to see this not just as good for the environment, but − in nations with rich forests − good business as well. It depends on location, and market. In Finland, by law, a felled tree must be replaced by a new planting, so timber construction would not reduce forest area overall.

“Our previous research shows that if you buy a flat you’re more concerned about its environmental footprint than if you rent. An owner typically invests more in ways to improve performance, like energy-saving options.

“This principle seems to hold true here: buyers are willing to pay more for an eco-friendly choice, even if they can’t afford to live in the most expensive neighbourhoods of the city,” Professor Junnila said.

“Building with wood is essentially the only way for cities to store carbon − by definition they don’t have the vast amounts of nature needed to sink carbon. The good news is that some international investment companies have already realised the potential of timber construction, and we can only expect this interest to grow.” − Climate News Network