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New Zealand's wood revolution: How Tallwood is betting big on wood

How do we solve a problem like the housing crisis? Prefab NZ and Tallwood's Daiman Otto is betting on wood, emerging technologies and improved productivity. 

New Zealand’s housing crisis has been a ubiquitous theme in recent years. During the election campaign, both major parties made the promise of more supply. After swimming to victory, the public is holding Labour to its promise of building 100,000 affordable homes. Although it is early days, the vision is clear: ban overseas speculators from buying existing houses, collaborate with Housing New Zealand to stop the state houses sell off and establish the affordable housing authority through the Kiwibuild programme. Broadly, the government wants more supply, meaning more weight on the shoulders of the construction industry. 

Daiman Otto.

Productivity levels are also looking like a wet sock. According to a recent Branz report, productivity in the construction sector hasn’t improved in the last 20 years and most agree Auckland needs to double the amount of new homes being built to meet demand. Bids to fix the housing crisis feels like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, which begs the question – how can we expect efficient, affordable delivery on housing?

Daiman Otto thinks it could be through a combination of old and new. Otto is a board member of Prefab NZ as well as co-founder of Tallwood, a startup that combines the traditional material of wood with cutting-edge technology to construct buildings both big and small. 

“New Zealand is certainly ready for change, and there are massive pressures on scaling up and doing so affordably,” he says. 

And that pressure is leading to some radical thinking and innovation – at least “on the fringes”. 

Wood from the trees

Fascinated by prefabrication (off-site manufacturing), emerging technology and DIY culture, Otto created Tallwood in April 2015 and projects are underway. Currently, it has 42 apartments being constructed in Hobsonville, with work to follow in Onehunga, Mangere and the city fringe. Additionally, Tallwood has partnered with Toi Ohomai Institute to design affordable, sustainable homes which contribute to health and wellbeing for Maori. The project is funded by the national science challenge to Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in a collaboration with scientists from Unitec Institute of Technology and Scion who shared an overarching ambition to develop an affordable papakainga, or housing settlement – unlocking the potential of Maori land. 

Otto states: “Our goal is to create an affordable housing community for rural Maori on their sites and the idea is that it could be used for further Maori around the country and also other people in urban areas who want a more community-making approach and as a response to affordable housing”.

Talking Timber 

An integral part of Tallwood is its use of cross laminated timber (CLT), This form of engineered timber is a multi-layered plank offering cost effectiveness and environmental friendliness, and the rigidity, durability and aesthetic properties present a plausible substitute to concrete, masonry and steel. 

According to Rethink Wood, prefabricated timber has been popular in Europe over the last 20 years and is trending globally. Now it’s starting to be used more frequently in this part of the world. A notable example is the production of the 10-storey Forte apartment building in Australia. Its construction company, Lend Lease believed using CLT was 30 percent faster than conventional buildings while reducing 90 percent of truck transport onsite. London’s Murray Grove is another credible example of timber use: the first urban housing project built using prefabricated solid timber. Forging the nine-story tower took a mere 49 weeks, delivering 29 fully insulated and soundproof apartments. On our doorstep, Sir Bob Jones is also looking to embrace the benefits of wood, with plans to build the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper in Wellington. The building will be made from laminated timber columns and beams, which has been signalled to stand up better in earthquakes than steel or reinforced concrete. It can also withstand intense heat, rid it’s hands of concreted views, and use carbon sequestering materials. 

The Wood Processors and Manufacturers Association chief executive Jon Tanner told Stuff that Jones was at the leading edge of new technology and was ensuring that more engineers and designers think about using these products. And why wouldn’t you? In addition to cost and time savings, Otto says: “It is the only renewable material, it’s precise, it’s available, it’s understandable, it’s light.” 

The company believed using cross laminated timber was 30 percent faster than conventional buildings while reducing 90 percent of truck transport onsite.

Digital shifts

Although the construction sector has a range of technologies at its disposal, Otto says adoption for engineered timber products like CLT has been slow. This is not due to lack of desire, but a combination of capital constraints to create new sources of local supply, coupled with the difficulty of accessing offshore manufactured CLT. New Zealand’s CLT supply largely relies on a single company – XLam – and building another would require up to $50 million, which the government and venture capitalists are seemingly ambivalent about. Otto says it’s not just about bolstering local supply, but looking at other options, including sourcing CLT from overseas where appropriate.

“There are plenty of producers overseas, in Europe in particular, but our building code, or more properly, our construction standards makes it very difficult to bring in offshore manufactured CLT. Around 80 percent of CLT produced out of the world comes out of Austria or Germany, which don’t treat the timber like we do. What people don’t recognise is that this product is fundamentally different from individual sticks of CLT timber.”

As well as the use of CLT, Tall Wood also uses digital fabrication through CNC processes, digital twinning and sensing environments, among many others. The use of digital tools such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) are also a vehicle of good design. Basically, BIM is an intelligent 3D model based processing system that allows collaboration between designers. The programme can vary components or models and track changes and effects on other parts of the building and he says the software is now matching up with engineered materials, such as CLT. 

“We like to think of buildings as products, and not in the materialistic consuming sense, but as highly designed elements that are the result of a dedicated process,” he says. 

On a broader level, Tall Wood identifies smart levers as a useful incentive to raise the performance of the building sector. 

“If there was a mandate that you had to construct a building removing 90 percent of truck movement to each site, the effects would be a removal of waste from the site, reduced traffic congestion, as well as fewer issues regarding safety.”  

Otto doesn’t believe in prescribing what the solution needs to be or advocating for all companies to be using offsite manufacturing, but the pressure continues to grow as a result of New Zealand’s housing shortage. As many have said, doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity, so while it is always difficult to change established approaches, he is confident his methods offer part of the solution.

Three amazing things being done with wood

The renaissance of wood has spurred a new marveled reality; mixing old resources with new technologies. Here are 3 useful examples of emerging designs with wood. 

Nanocellulose: The promising wood fibre is as strong  as steel but five times lighter. Potential commercial application for the nanomaterial could be seen in car panels, ballistic glass, synthetic armour, and medical uses. 

Transparent wood is now a thing, as the strong  plentiful product steps into unforeseen territory.  

The glass style of wood presents an environmentally sensitive solution to glass using prepolymerized methyl methacrylate (PMMA)  and brainy scientists. 

Brikawood: The economical and environmentally credible construction method is taking Europe by storm. The sensation: a construction method centred on a wooden brick, which assembles and disassembles without glue or nails. 

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