We’ve all grown understandably weary of the term “shortage” these days, but the lack of suitable school buildings for a surging numbers of school-age children should top the list of parents’ most pressing concerns.
Growing populations of primary and secondary pupils means that many UK and European schools simply don’t have space to house their growing student body comfortably. This has led to a slew of difficult decisions, including “temporary” structures that sometimes end up in use for years, or cramped classrooms where students are packed together like sardines.
At the same time, skyrocketing fuel prices are forcing some school officials to reconsider their antiquated buildings’ use of heat, water, and electricity — as well as their larger carbon footprint. These considerations are likely to continue to be a factor in school boards’ short- and long-term plans, as the dual crises of climate change and rising energy costs converge.
Stora Enso, a leader of solutions within wood construction, packaging, and biomaterials, has a proposed solution with potential to address both these problems at once: an easy-to-build kit called Sylva (Latin for “woodland” or “forest”). The kit, made of wood and consisting of pre-manufactured, custom-made components including walls, floors, roofs, stairs, beams, columns, and rib panels, promises not only to help schools keep up with rising demand for new classrooms, but also to cut down on the carbon emissions associated with construction of such structures.
“The benefits of building with timber are extensive, not least when it comes to schools because they are built for future generations,” said Lars Völkel, executive vice president of Stora Enso Wood Products.
A sustainable solution to dual problems
As reported by the World Economic Forum, the “built environment” — closely tied to the construction industry — is responsible for a whopping 39 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. As corporations and governments look for new opportunities to meet ambitious climate and energy goals, many are paying close attention to the construction sector.
When it comes to school construction, many of today’s current buildings are made of concrete and steel. These materials are associated with a massive carbon footprint. In fact, concrete has been called “the most destructive material on earth.” Meanwhile, studies have found that every cubic meter of wood is capable of storing around 1 tonne of CO2. (Even once a tree is cut down, the carbon stored in the wood remains locked in the raw material.)
Sylva, which consists of massive wood, reportedly provides up to 70 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than concrete buildings. What’s more, Stora Enso explains that even a small, 1,200 m² school concept building can store up to 50 tonnes of carbon throughout its lifecycle.
These are all important considerations, given that growth of education construction projects is projected to spike 14 percent in the next year.
“We are making it as easy as possible to plan, design, and build a mass timber school,” said Sebastian Hernadez, R&D manager of building concepts with Stora Enso. “It shouldn’t be hard to build sustainably.”
Stora Enso has a long history of sustainably managed timber; today, it’s one of the largest forest owners in the world. “Mass timber” more generally has become a hot topic in recent years as architecture firms and construction entities consider ways to both cut costs and curb their carbon impact. Companies like Stora Enso, whose wood products are third-party certified by traceability and various chain-of-custody systems, are an increasingly attractive solution. All Sylva products made in Europe are produced with renewable-only electricity and fossil-free energy.
Benefits beyond sustainability
Sylva building kits have a number of benefits for budget- and time-pressed school boards that go beyond the basic carbon and cost savings, including faster installation time — around 30 percent less time spent on construction sites — and less environmental impact than traditional construction methods. There are ancillary benefits of pre-fabrication as well, including a potentially reduced need for construction labour, which is critical amidst the current labour shortage (there’s that word again).
Finally, because wood weighs about five times less than concrete, it requires a fewer number of deliveries, which means lower transportation costs and emissions.
In addition to being used for schools, Sylva could be a game-changer for offices, commercial spaces, and even multi-story residential buildings. On top of being a more sustainable option than steel or concrete structures, wood buildings are also associated with a host of health and wellness benefits. “Biophilic design,” or design that mimics nature, has been shown to improve mental health and cognitive capacity. It’s also associated with improvements in indoor air quality. And finally, when it’s time to adapt, renovate, or tear down one of these buildings in the future, parts can be reused or recycled with minimal environmental impact since they’re made from wood.
“We see an increasing demand from building developers for healthy interior spaces, driven by multiple research reports showing health impacts of biophilic design. This is a trend that we are likely to see more and more of,” said Johanna Pirinen, the SVP of sustainability and wood products at Stora Enso.