Wood in Architecture: Uses, Pros & Cons

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From the humble hut in prehistory to the most dynamic contemporary architectural solutions, wood in architecture has been crowned as one of the preferred construction trends in terms of sustainable development.

Read this article in spanish: El impacto ambiental de la madera en la construcción: uso, ventajas y desventajas

The use of wood in different types of construction offers multiple advantages and disadvantages. Generally, wood is used as cladding, insulation, or decoration material. Its use encompasses not only housing but is also suitable for other types of structures, such as road infrastructure, with examples like prestressed wooden bridges that have proven to be an excellent alternative to steel bridges. Other works include buildings up to 9 stories high, commercial establishments, pavilions, and sports centers, suitable for any cultural activity.

The environmental impact of wood in construction

Wood has the function of absorbing and expelling moisture from constructions, thus regulating the indoor environment. The natural bioelectric field of wood provides a state of balance in the human body and helps prevent respiratory problems. Wooden constructions, by themselves, act as insulators, unlike those made with other materials which, in most cases, are complemented with additional synthetic insulating substances.

Wood has a more favorable strength-to-weight ratio than steel, and much more favorable than concrete. Some may consider that wooden structures only last a few decades, which is far from reality, as wood is one of the few materials that age naturally, and this process can even last centuries.

The environmental character of wood is superior to that of other materials in the construction sector since it requires less energy expenditure in its production, is natural, biodegradable, recyclable, insulating, and non-toxic. Its resistance, hardness, manageability, physical and mechanical properties, as well as its decorative possibilities, make it an ideal product for the execution of avant-garde architectural projects.

Wood in its natural state serves as a refuge for local fauna, in addition to capturing carbon dioxide, one of the main gases causing the greenhouse effect. Wood is a renewable resource, and rational use of this resource allows the forest to regenerate and increase its extent. Compared to other materials or minerals, whose extraction from nature causes the destruction of an ecosystem and its depletion, the sustainable use of wood promotes the growth of new specimens that occupy the space left by the previous ones. It is non-toxic and biodegradable, as its decomposition helps create a better quality soil for new plants to grow.

Of course, it is environmentally irresponsible to consume wood from a primary forest, but it is ideal to use wood from well-managed plantations and where the processing company practices responsible forestry. The use of wood from well-managed forests helps regenerate biodiversity in the area and the development of communities related to it.

Various life cycle assessment (LCA) studies conducted on wood allow comparing the environmental impact of products used in construction, from extraction, manufacturing, and use, to disposal, demonstrating that its behavior is superior to that of other traditional materials.

Globally, society used to exploit natural resources as if the planet were at the service of humanity and wealth were inexhaustible, an attitude that is now more than reprehensible. But gradually, communities have become more aware of the need to achieve necessary ecological balance and not compromise the future. Bearing this in mind, and in order to assess the importance and risks of wood in construction, it is advisable to know its advantages and disadvantages, outlined below.

Pros of wood in architecture

Wood offers numerous advantages in architecture, achieving sustainable, aesthetically pleasing, and environmentally conscious designs. These are 11 pros of wood in architecture:

  1. Wood is an ecological structural material as it requires less energy to work and causes less water and air pollution compared to other construction materials. Wood consumes one-sixth of the energy needed to process the equivalent weight unit of structural steel.
  2. Wooden construction has significant advantages against earthquakes. Proof of this has been the multiple structures that have resisted recent natural disasters without damage. A wooden construction with low weight in the event of an earthquake yields to oscillation but does not collapse, and there is less risk of damage due to a collapse compared to constructions of the same size made of steel and concrete.
  3. Due to the low weight of wood, substantial economic savings are generated in the processes it undergoes and in its transportation costs. Furthermore, wood is a good structural material since its strength with respect to its weight is very high, compared to steel and concrete.
  4. Wood is a natural insulating material that offers a pleasant climate due to its thermal inertia, whether in a cold climate, where its conditions retain heat and maintain a warmer indoor environment, or in hot environments, where it offers cooler interiors. This allows for lower energy consumption for air conditioning or heating. It is also an excellent insulator of sound waves and vibrations.
  5. The time taken to build a wooden house is less than that taken in a house of the same size with a traditional construction system.
  6. Modifications or extensions can be made to the construction without the need for demolition and causing great inconvenience to its users.
  7. A properly designed wooden house can withstand a fire to a greater extent than a traditional house.
  8. Wood is a renewable material, a result of carbon capture and oxygen release in its natural state.
  9. It is possible to make prefabricated or modular elements in various locations and then transport and assemble them at the construction site.
  10. With wood, it is possible to make durable constructions that are superior in quality and comfort, compared to those made of steel and concrete.
  11. In the recent boom of bioclimatic construction, which seeks to reduce energy consumption and bring economic, ecological, and comfort benefits to users, wood fits perfectly as a construction material.

However, everything that exists has a good side and a bad side, so it is important to also mention the disadvantages of using wood in buildings.

Cons of wood in architecture

However, nothing is perfect, and wood also has its disadvantages when used in buildings. Here are 7 cons of wood in architecture.

  1. Many times, wood is not given a preservative treatment, so it remains prone to attack by xylophagous agents and exposure to the elements. While wood is resistant, proper protection of the wood is necessary, as without it, the durability of the construction can be compromised.
  2. A commercial or residential building designed in wood can become a problem when large sizes are sought.
  3. Wood, being an orthotropic material, does not have the same modules of mechanical strength in all directions, but varies with respect to the direction of its fibers. This can generate instability in the structure if the appropriate type of wood is not selected.
  4. Manufacturers of wooden houses or constructions at the artisanal level are not in a position to compete with those that produce on an industrial level. This tilts the balance in favor of old and unsustainable construction methods.
  5. It is necessary to make an almost perfect design (which is more important than when using other materials) to ensure the resistance of the building to different environmental conditions, constantly changing due to biotic factors and weathering.
  6. Regular maintenance becomes an impetuous necessity.
  7. In some cases, construction requires the joint work of several guilds. There is a need to unite the work of carpenters, masons, glaziers, and painters, which can affect the time of the work and the final finishing.

Prefabrication: a good option for ecological construction

Those of us who have ever played with building blocks like Legos have realized that the larger the pieces, the faster we built a wall or a structure. In housing construction, there is an increasing tendency to use components manufactured in production plants that are assembled on-site. This practice accelerates the construction process and reduces costs and environmental impact.

The concept of prefabricated housing is usually associated with bungalows or cabins. However, from geodesic structures to the current proposals for modern modular housing, there are numerous constructions whose components have been manufactured in a plant located kilometers away from where they will finally become a home. The pieces are purchased as a kit that the end user assembles on-site.

In the case of modular homes as well as buildings with prefabricated components, the construction time is shortened, in some cases, by half (although it is more spectacular in the case of homes entirely built in a factory that, after being transported to the site, can be assembled and occupied in a matter of days). Additionally, an interesting advantage is that the constructions can be completely disassembled and taken to another location.

From an environmental development perspective, prefabricated wooden components offer enormous advantages, as construction could cease to be so volatile and become a continuous activity in the production plant, where components for future buildings can be manufactured throughout the year. This allows a construction sector employee to have a fixed job and be less subject to industry rhythm variations. Prefabricated components even generate economic advantages for companies since specialized labor is not needed for these assembly lines, resulting in lower wages compared to employing a professional carpenter at the construction site.

The construction of prefabricated wooden elements guarantees materials of equal or superior quality to those offered by conventional construction, because during the production process, they are subject to higher quality control. Exposure to weather conditions is minimal since on-site assembly takes place over a short period of time, material waste is reduced, and the waste generated on-site is minimal.

The prefabrication of wooden construction elements can pave the way for the creation of buildings that are easier to disassemble when they reach the end of their useful life, thus being able to use the materials elsewhere. Greater control over processes and materials is also possible, both in managing the waste generated (easier in the plant than on-site), and in the elimination of toxic products.

On the other hand, the use of wooden prefabricates helps to make good design more affordable, as modulation does not necessarily imply a massified final proposal since each plot has particular characteristics of topography, environment, climatic conditions, visuals, etc., which justify consulting an architect to expand creative options.

Taking the step to use wood in architecture is becoming environmentally conscious, reducing energy consumption and pollution, as well as promoting the growth of controlled forests that become the Earth’s lungs. Over time, humanity has allowed itself to establish building standards and sustainable architecture strategies that positively impact aspects such as sustainability, habitability, and energy consumption. The widespread and growing use of wood worldwide demonstrates that its numerous advantages far outweigh its disadvantages, so it is only a matter of time before wood becomes the primary material for constructions around the world.

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Yealfred Matheus
Yealfred Matheus
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