Posted: September 12, 2023
The chairperson of York Timbers, Dr Schalk Grobbelaar.
Dean of University of Pretoria EBIT Faculty, Professor Wynand Steyn.
Pretoria Institute for Architects (PIA) Executive Director, Mr. Mauneen van Wyk.
Saw Milling South Africa Executive Director, Mr Roy Southey
Leaders of Academia, Government, Business & Labour;
Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is my pleasure today to join you in such an important Timber Construction Conference.
The Forestry Sector Masterplan is in support of the Re-imagined Industrial Strategy (RIS) for South Africa (SA), approved by the Government in June 2019. Forestry is also one of the sectors that is being prioritised under the Public Private Growth Initiative (PPGI- a partnership between the National Government and the private sector to stimulate investment.
The Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) put in place the Masterplan process, working together with the sector specific Departments. For the forestry sector, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) is the lead department with oversight over both the Masterplan and its implementation.
The Master Plan for the commercial forestry sector in South Africa: 2020 – 2025, has the objective of increasing investment, jobs and competitiveness – underpinned by greater inclusivity in the forestry sector. The key focus area of the Forestry Sector Masterplan identifies an urgent need to improve the use of timber and engineered timber products in the South African Built Environment, especially in the government and state-owned entities.
I am informed that in 2018 various stakeholders including government and industry came together to discuss and provide an understanding of the principles and importance of a sustainable approach to building, using timber in the construction industry.
The main outcome of this collaboration was to provide a solution to the green economy, reduce the carbon emissions from the buildings, and diversify the products that the sawmilling sector is currently producing which is roof trusses. Further to this, a strategy or framework was developed to start a journey to promote timber in construction. Three strategic pillars for promoting timber in construction are demand creation, capacity building and security of supply and industrialisation. The demand creation pillar aims to create awareness of the advantages of timber construction and generate demand for such.
The capacity-building pillar focuses on developing skills and upskilling current professionals in the built environment. Wood, with its special characteristics, holds much greater potential to contribute to the bio-economy.
Less than one per cent of homes and buildings in South Africa are built from timber. Timber is useful and is reliably an available product in the country, but its use has not been positively exploited to the benefit of the population at large. Part of the barriers which prevent the use of wood are myths that society has – some of which include:
- Fear of wood resistance to fire, the propensity to rot, and lack of structural integrity.
- Timber house is reduced to a Wendy House, and therefore more expensive to build and maintain.
- Wood house is seen as not thermally efficient, and that timber construction contributes to deforestation; and that brick & mortar is better than wood. Yet wood as a historically reliable building material carries excellent advantages that can resolve South African problems to bridge the challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment.
I have seen how Americans used timber to build beautiful large houses, even double stories with 80% material being timber. These houses outlasts generations, with their structural integrity remaining sound. We grew up in rural villages during our dark times in South Africa when roundavels and square houses were built through a mix of timber, stones and thatched grass. Of cause, this associated with being poor, as we all were during those days.
The move away from timber houses in South Africa towards bricks and mortar has been associated with higher living standards, an envy for all the households in the rural communities.
I have been advised about the truths of the benefits associated with the use of timber construction materials, and I must confess it has been an eye-opener, that:
- The production and processing of wood uses less energy than most other building materials, giving wood products a significantly lower carbon footprint.
- Different research studies have discovered that the increased use of wood has measurable physiological and psychological health benefits and wood is a durable material which can be used for both homes and commercial buildings.
- Wood is a natural insulator due to the air pockets within its cellular structure. This helps to reduce the cost of heating and cooling a building.
Far from these benefits, the information in our disposal is a caution to protect our trees and timber in general because it is an important counterweight against global warming, the generation of oxygen for humanity is associated with abundance of trees that must not be destroyed, like we have seen in the past, during Bolsnaro President in Brazil in the Amazon.
I think all of you present in this conference as academics, professionals and policy makers have a lot of work to do, in educating the nation. We need some model designs across the country as well.
I am told that, because of the limited use of wood in construction, the current curriculum does not include these perspectives in training the skilled professionals and artisans who are instrumental in the design and build industry. Therefore, there is a knowledge gap that must be be bridged in understanding of timber in construction other than the roof top structures.
We must deal with the lack of design skills and supporting technical data for wooden materials. This gap can be closed by launching online digital skills training courses which will upskill these professionals and assist them in expediting the adoption of new digital technologies. South African universities must urgently improve their research capacity in wood-based building materials and methods. Given the economic importance of the construction sector, research and development (R&D) within the timber and construction industries, is very small and should be increased.
Professions which influence urban landscapes and buildings need to become more astute in the application of new-engineered timber (ET) products and the industry needs to catch up with the latest trends in wood products. The building industry has boom-and-bust cycles – sometimes there is little work, and sometimes there is too much. The volatility of price materials drive costs to the roof and stagnate the industry sometimes. In infusing timber materials for construction, the industry will have too much work if one considers the use of timber in the construction industry.
Our national policy frameworks should put more focus on improving the long-term competitiveness of the forest sector. We should work towards a framework that brings together the wood science, engineering and policy that ensures the best environmental outcomes for constructing with natural materials.
It would be easy to demolished and recycle these natural resources than any other building materials. That, alone fits perfectly in our quest to save the planet. A low-carbon and resource-efficient society will translate into a sustainable economy and that can only be achieved through sourcing of high level of expertise, research and industrial strengths. In addition, the policy should go right through the supply chain and look at timber as a sustainable, enduring product, and get architects, engineers and design schools involved in using the new-engineered timber products.
Against this background, the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (DTIC) considered it appropriate to promote wood as a useful and reliable building material, as an opportunity to contribute positively to the industrialisation and job creation in the country. There is a formidable sawmilling and forestry industry in the country to support this. The Sawmilling sector currently contributes about 30 000 employment to the nation and a recent study has shown that promoting timber in construction has the potential to unlock the R1bn industry and create additional jobs within the sector. Since 2020, three companies have started making engineered wood and employing more than 90 people amongst the three companies.
As the Department, we are also working on Furniture Master Plan which will use a lot of timber for households.
These are downstream beneficiations of the timber that we must embrace and create more opportunities and economy, through them.
In conclusion, I would like to respond to the call that was made by the Minister of Human Settlement on the 6th of July 2023 where she said …
“I am calling for a total rethink on how we build human settlements going forward. Currently, we have to respond to the devastating impact of these natural disasters that in most cases render families homeless and at worst lead to deaths. Planning, designing and building human settlements with climate change in mind will help us to be proactive and avoid loss of lives and homelessness”….
Timber Construction ticks all the boxes raised in the statement above and this conference today should at the end of the day come up with a convincing case that we do have a resource that can address the backlog of housing in this country like.