Wood construction integrated into urban strategy

Wood buildings, such as Helsinki’s central library Oodi, have improved the cityscape. Pic: Finnish Sawmills Association


Of the Finnish cities, Helsinki has been at the forefront of pioneering wood construction. Several public as well as private wood construction projects have already enlivened the cityscape and reduced the CO2 load. Many more new projects are in the pipeline.

In 2017, Helsinki set itself a target of becoming carbon-neutral by the year 2035. To achieve it, a working group of civil servants proposed a set of 143 measures, some of which applied to construction.

“Wood is an ecological option. Wood buildings act as carbon sinks, and their construction-time emissions are significantly lower compared to concrete construction,” says Anu Turunen, planning engineer, the City of Helsinki.

The residents feel that wood buildings, such as the central library Oodi or the Kamppi Chapel, have improved the cityscape. The best spots in the city are already taken. There’s nothing left but plots with poor soil.

”Foundations built on the old sea bed or clay soil require a lot of concrete, so a wooden frame can reduce the building’s carbon load,” says Anu.

In addition to her housing and construction duties, part of Anu’s job description for the last few years has been to promote wood construction in the city.

According to Anu, the zoning for wood-based residential areas originated from the views of individual planners and the idea that construction needed to be changed.

Gaining popularity

Practical experiences encouraged a gradual increase of building plans for wood buildings. “To give you an example, one plan was frozen for a long time due to a complaint until the plan was changed to include a wood building. Thanks to that, the new plan was approved, which we took as a positive sign,” Anu recollects.

Indeed, for several years now, several plans have been launched in Helsinki for wooden schools, day-care spaces and residential areas. The majority of the residential buildings currently under construction are wood structures, and there are planned wooden residential areas with a total floor area of more than 1 million square metres in the pipeline.

“There are more residential areas planned for large old plots. More and more frequently, they are now implemented as wood buildings. This makes construction faster and causes fewer disruptions in the neighbourhood. Wood buildings are clearly more palatable to the older residents,” Anu says.

The city is currently involved in an ongoing joint research project with Tampere University and the City of Espoo on wood construction from the point of view of local residents. The research will be finished later this year.

New opportunities

The premise for a wood-structure garage for the Lammenranta residential area was drawn up in the autumn of 2018, when the City of Helsinki held a carbon neutrality workshop looking for new opportunities for wood construction.

From the perspective of circular economy emerged the idea for a multi-storey car park that compensates the emissions from cars. Even though European Union funding was not forthcoming to support the planning, the cities of Helsinki, Vantaa and Tampere decided to persevere with the project, backed by funding from the Finnish Ministry of Environment.

The design team has been assembled and there are lessons to be learned – good as well as bad – from similar international implementations.

“The decision to build has not been made yet. However, together with Versowood and the other parties involved in the project, we are currently looking for the most economically viable solution,” Anu informs.

Alongside new applications, Anu also sees many other opportunities in wood construction. Having parts pre-fabricated in factories under controlled conditions has numerous effects on both the speed and quality of the construction work.

“Domestic production benefits everyone, especially now, considering the risks involved in the use of foreign employees on construction sites due to Covid-19. In a way, wood construction concerns the whole country because it helps us to make the most of our forests,” Anu says.

However, she points out that wood construction can only grow on market terms when city dwellers start to demand wood, not just with regard to the structures. The benefits of wood, such as its acoustic and anti-bacterial properties, its advantageous effects on learning and its health benefits, will only come to the fore once wood is also used indoors.

“There are still many old superstitions and suspicions related to wood. It is important to correct and highlight them. First and foremost, it is the responsibility of everyone working in the field of wood construction,” Anu stresses.

– The writer is M.Sc. Economics, M.Sc. Forestry, and the CEO of Autiomaa Oy, a communications, marketing and business consulting firm. She is on the core team of advisors for Wood From Finland in India. She can be contacted at johanna.autio@autiomaa.fi.



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