Supermarket giant Tesco has set out plans to build 27 timber frame superstores in the year ending February 2011 - and even more the following year - as part of its “timber ambition”.
Chief architect Martin Young told a conference this week that the sustainability benefits of timber frames meant the firm would use the 27 stores in 2010/11 as a benchmark to beat in future years.
“Timber frames mean sustainable design,” he said. “We want to do 27 this year and we have more in the pipeline for 2011/12. We aren’t looking to use timber frames for every store at this stage, but we do have a timber ambition.”
Timber is championed as the most sustainable of construction materials and the benefits include the ability to source locally and to recycle and chip the frames.
But timber frames have been subject to intense scrutiny recently over perceived fire risks. They were thrust into the spotlight last November when hundreds of people were forced to evacuate their homes after a fire broke out at a Peckham site where Greenacre Homes was developing 39 timber-frame properties.
Timber Trade Federation chief executive John White said the intense media scrutiny surrounding the incident had led to an inaccurate public perception of the risks involved with using timber frames.
“Timber does have a greater fire risk than steel at the construction stage, but once the building is complete it has to pass the same fire regulations as any other,” he said.
Another criticism of timber frames has been cost, but Mr White said this was an outdated view. “When you take into account steel’s exposure to price hikes, the ease of offsite timber frame manufacturing and the cheap cost of importing timber from elsewhere in the UK or Scandinavia, the price becomes comparable,” he said.
“We’re seeing innovation in the timber industry not recognised five years ago. The challenge we face is providing the clients with construction solutions, rather than simply offering the product.”
Steel contractors said Tesco’s shift towards timber was not a cause for concern due to the size of the 27-store trial.
“It isn’t something that I’m going to lose sleep over,” said one contractor. “Sustainability is high on the agenda of all the major retailers and it’s understandable they trial different materials.
“Timber isn’t quite as sustainable as many people imagine though and steel is 100 per cent recyclable. You use it, melt it back down and use it again - cradle to cradle.”
Alan Todd, director of market development at steel contractors body the BCSA, believes the sustainability credentials of timber frames are questionable.
“When timber ends up in landfill, methane is created - which is 25 times worse than CO2. Even with sophisticated carbon capture techniques, a lot escapes.”