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ENVIRONMENT

IN PICTURES: In Scandinavia, wooden buildings reach new heights

A sandy-coloured tower glints in the sunlight and dominates the skyline of the Swedish town of Skellefteå as Scandinavia harnesses its wood resources to lead a global trend towards erecting eco-friendly high-rises.

IN PICTURES: In Scandinavia, wooden buildings reach new heights
The Sara culture house, one of the world's tallest wooden buildings made of 20 floors, is pictured on February 22, 2022, in Skelleftea, in Vasterbotten county, north-eastern Sweden. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP)

The Sara Cultural Centre is one of the world’s tallest timber buildings, made primarily from spruce and towering 75 metres (246 feet) over rows of snow-dusted houses and surrounding forest.

The 20-storey timber structure, which houses a hotel, a library, an exhibition hall and theatre stages, opened at the end of 2021 in the northern town of 35,000 people.

Forests cover much of Sweden’s northern regions, most of it spruce, and building timber homes is a longstanding tradition.

Swedish architects now want to spearhead a revolution and steer the industry towards more sustainable construction methods as large wooden buildings sprout up in Sweden and neighbouring Nordic nations thanks to advancing industry techniques.

“The pillars together with the beams, the interaction with the steel and wood, that is what carries the 20 storeys of the hotel,” Therese Kreisel, a Skellefteå urban planning official, tells AFP during a tour of the cultural centre.

A general view shows the Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings, on February 22, 2022, in Skellefteå, in Vasterbotten County, north-eastern Sweden.(Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

Even the lift shafts are made entirely of wood. “There is no plaster, no seal, no isolation on the wood,” she says, adding that this “is unique when it comes to a 20-storey building”.

Building materials go green

The main advantage of working with wood is that it is more environmentally friendly, proponents say.

Cement — used to make concrete — and steel, two of the most common construction materials, are among the most polluting industries because they emit huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.

But wood emits little CO2 during its production and retains the carbon absorbed by the tree even when it is cut and used in a building structure.

It is also lighter in weight, requiring less of a foundation.

The Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings with its 20 floors (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

According to the UN’s IPCC climate panel, wood as a construction material can be up to 30 times less carbon intensive than concrete, and hundreds or even thousands times less than steel.

Global efforts to cut emissions have sparked an upswing in interest for timber structures, according to Jessica Becker, the coordinator of Trästad (City of Wood), an organisation lobbying for more timber construction.

Skellefteå’s tower “showcases that is it possible to build this high and complex in timber”, says Robert Schmitz, one of the project’s two architects.

The spa of the Wood Hotel, located in the 20th floor of the Sara culture house, one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

 “When you have this as a backdrop for discussions, you can always say, ‘We did this, so how can you say it’s not possible?’.”

Only an 85-metre tower recently erected in Brumunddal in neighbouring Norway and an 84-metre structure in Vienna are taller than the Sara Cultural Centre. 

A building under construction in the US city of Milwaukee and due to be completed soon is expected to clinch the title of the world’s tallest, at a little more than 86 metres.

‘Stacked like Lego’

Building the cultural centre in spruce was “much more challenging” but “has also opened doors to really think in new ways”, explains Schmitz’s co-architect Oskar Norelius.

For example, the hotel rooms were made as pre-fabricated modules that were then “stacked like Lego pieces on site”, he says. The building has won several wood architecture prizes.

In Sweden, a new generation of wooden buildings pushes the boundaries of tradition. (Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

Anders Berensson, another Stockholm architect whose material of choice is wood, says timber has many advantages.

“If you missed something in the cutting you just take the knife and the saw and sort of adjust it on site. So it’s both high tech and low tech at the same time”, he says.

In Stockholm, an apartment complex made of wood, called Cederhusen and featuring distinctive yellow and red cedar shingles on the facade, is in the final stages of completion.

It has already been named the Construction of the Year by Swedish construction industry magazine Byggindustrin.

(Photo by Jonathan Näckstrand / AFP)

“I think we can see things shifting in just the past few years actually,” says Becker.

“We are seeing a huge change right now, it’s kind of the tipping point. And I’m hoping that other countries are going to catch on, we see examples even in England and Canada and other parts of the world.”

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CLIMATE CRISIS

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

From deadly wildfires to catastrophic floods, Europe is seeing the impact of the climate crisis with episodes of extreme weather only likely to increase in the coming years as average temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: How the climate crisis is hitting Europe hard

Europe endured record extreme weather in 2021, from the hottest day and the warmest summer to deadly wildfires and
flooding, the European Union’s climate monitoring service reported Friday.

While Earth’s surface was nearly 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels last year, Europe saw an average increase of more than two degrees, a threshold beyond which dangerous extreme weather events become
more likely and intense, the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said.

The warmest summer on record featured a heatwave along the Mediterranean rim lasting weeks and the hottest day ever registered in Europe, a blistering 48.8C (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in Italy’s Sicily.

In Greece, high temperatures fuelled deadly wildfires described by the prime minister as the country’s “greatest ecological disaster in decades”.

Forests and homes across more than 8,000 square kilometres (3,000 square miles) were burned to the ground.

Front loaders work to move branches and uprooted trees near a bridge over the Ahr river in Insul, Ahrweiler district, western Germany, on July 28, 2021, weeks after heavy rain and floods caused major damage in the Ahr region. – At least 180 people died when severe floods pummelled western Germany over two days in mid-July, raising questions about whether enough was done to warn residents ahead of time. (Photo by Sascha Schuermann / AFP)

A slow-moving, low-pressure system over Germany, meanwhile, broke the record in mid-July for the most rain dumped in a single day.

The downpour was nourished by another unprecedented weather extreme, surface water temperatures over part of the Baltic Sea more than 5C above average.

Flooding in Germany and Belgium caused by the heavy rain — made far more likely by climate change, according to peer-reviewed studies — killed scores and caused billions of euros in damage.

As the climate continues to warm, flooding on this scale will become more frequent, the EU climate monitor has warned.

“2021 was a year of extremes including the hottest summer in Europe, heatwaves in the Mediterranean, flooding and wind droughts in western Europe,” C3S director Carlo Buontempo said in a statement.

“This shows that the understanding of weather and climate extremes is becoming increasingly relevant for key sectors of society.”     

A picture taken on July 15, 2021 shows damaged cars on a flooded street in the Belgian city of Verviers, after heavy rains and floods lashed western Europe, killing at least two people in Belgium. (Photo by François WALSCHAERTS / AFP)

‘Running out of time’

The annual report, in its fifth edition, also detailed weather extremes in the Arctic, which has warmed 3C above the 19th-century benchmark — nearly three times the global average.

Carbon emissions from Arctic wildfires, mostly in eastern Siberia, topped 16 million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the total annual carbon pollution of Bolivia.

Greenland’s ice sheet — which along with the West Antarctic ice sheet has become the main driver of sea level rise — shed some 400 billion tonnes in mass in 2021.

The pace at which the world’s ice sheets are disintegrating has accelerated more than three-fold in the last 30 years.

“Scientific experts like the IPCC have warned us we are running out of time to limit global warming to 1.5C,” said Mauro Facchini, head of Earth observation at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space, referring to the UN’s science advisory panel.

“This report stresses the urgent necessity to act as climate-related extreme events are already occurring.”

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