Timber or Concrete?

Felling trees may not be all that bad, after all

September is here. It is known as the month of rain in Thailand and you might not see clear skies at all throughout this month. It is also the month when state-owned organisations are busy planning how to spend the last of what ever is still left of their budgetary allocations for the year _ generally on seminars, training, field trips, or even travel abroad or to other provinces.

A timber structure.

Too bad, travelling to the sea is not such a good option during this season, therefore forests and mountains are what they are aiming for.

Staying in the mountains during this month is comfortable. The weather is cool all day long. Khao Yai and Kanchanaburi are among the most popular destinations for campers as the forest there is full of life, and stays so until December when winter sets in and it starts to get dry.

Last week I visited Khao Yai and stayed at a very nice hotel in Wang Nam Khiew which is soon to be demolished as it encroaches on land that is part of a national park. The hotel is designed and built in a modern style using concrete, aluminum, glass and metal, but it does not blend well with the natural surroundings of Khao Yai. At first, maybe you don't think this is strange because we use concrete everywhere.

But when thinking deeply, I am staying in the middle of Thailand's largest national park with millions of trees; why had they to bring concrete from elsewhere to build a resort here? Don't we have enough timber to build such vernacular buildings?

I grew up at a time when using timber to build houses could be construed as a crime.

Almost 40 years ago, the government announced the country faced trouble in the face of massive deforestation that could lead to environmental problems such as climate change, drought and flooding. All natural parks, it decreed, must be conserved to allow trees to grow back. Wood and timber industries went under and the government turned to using concrete to build just about everything. Research centres at universities were contracted by the government to conduct studies on how to design and construct houses using 100% concrete _ no timber or wood at all. That was the beginning of another problem.

A green resort built with concrete.

When I was in architecture school, it was compulsory for first-year students to design a timber house as part of their year-end curriculum. We had good teachers and contractors who were masters of timber construction with projects all around the country. We did case studies of timber houses everywhere, especially in Ayutthaya, Suphan Buri, Pathum Thani, Chiang Mai and even in Bangkok. Students also went to the suburbs to learn from local people on how to build timber structures.

Within communities, residents gathered and helped their neighbours build houses using timber which at the time was abundant everywhere. That is part of Thai culture.

But today, with concrete replacing timber, our culture has changed. A steel-reinforced concrete structure is not easy to build without machines and specific tools. Local people cannot build their own homes anymore.

The skills for constructing wooden houses have been lost. Good contractors and skilled workers have disappeared, so much so today we don't even know how to build a decent wooden house.

We thought wood was history and concrete the future. Many people even think green buildings should not be built with timber as the forest will be destroyed.

Worse still, people think timber houses entail a high carbon cost as trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and we better leave trees as they are.

Does anybody realise that cutting down old trees and using the wood to construct houses, and re-planting new trees can help reduce carbon emissions as younger trees absorb more CO2 while growing up? That is what many European countries have been doing, while Thailand has done the opposites. It is called "Managed Growth Forest".

Now wood from Europe and America is entering the Thai market as a green material, whereas concrete is labelled a high-carbon material, which is not really green. And as usual, wood from the Managed Growth Forest industry is labelled a green product which comes with certificates and, of course, higher price tags. It is the green certificate that matters most in today's economy. We have to think carefully about the future.

While we stopped using timber for fear of deforestation but did nothing about its consequences, someone else started growing trees for business. Now they have a newly-defined low-carbon material to use and sell, and we still have nothing. If we need to go green with them, we will have to pay more to buy from them. This is yet another thing about the "Green Economy" which not many fully understand, and they won't until it is too late.

About the author

Writer: Asst Prof Dr Atch Sreshthaputra