Amid Fake News, World Architecture Judge Says Certified Timber is Gold Standard

Australian-based eco-architect has travelled the world to visit low carbon projects. From Cuba to the US, Europe and Asia, transparency is king!

Wed 20 Mar 24


Timber is now being used in more diverse applications, with architects’ thirst for knowledge leading to its “proper use” in projects worldwide.

That is according to World Architecture Festival (WAF) Judge Mark Thomson, who spoke to Sorellie Henricus, a Singaporean journalist, about the push to use more certified timber in global projects.

Mr Thomson, who regularly contributes to Wood Central, is one of 140 global architects (including a handful of Australians) who judge the largest live awards event for architects and designers. 

Last year, Mr Thomson spoke to the Wood Central podcast about the future of timber buildings – footage courtesy of @WoodCentralAU.

A director of Responsible Wood (Australia’s PEFC scheme) and the first architect to be appointed to the board of a forest certification scheme, Mr Thomson is also a judge of the Australian Banksia Awards, the former President of the Australia Green Development Forum, and an inaugural faculty member of the Green Building Council of Australia. He also runs Eco Effective Solutions, a leading eco-architecture consulting practice.

Below is a republished version of the interview:       

Sorelle Henricus: Hi Mark, your extensive architectural experience and advocacy for sustainable buildings are impressive. Could you share some key highlights and milestones that have shaped your career?

Mark Thomson: Almost everywhere I have lived has featured timber cladding, timber floors and structural systems, and intuitively, I’ve referenced timber as a natural and low-carbon material throughout my professional career. Reflecting back, some key milestones stand out:

My passion for organic architecture was fueled by a fascination with Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, which led me to visit his buildings across the United States in 1989 and to speak at the Frank Lloyd Wright School (Wisconsin) and Hollyhock House. At the same time, during my early career in commercial interior design, I grasped the importance of durability, detail, and cost in design decisions. More importantly, I discovered the positive impact indoor planting could have on air quality.

As a company director, I learned the importance of systems, quality, and certification, as well as the value of accurate documentation for projects, and I won business awards, including the prestigious Australian Quality Award. Designing collaboratively with Brisbane builder Michael Leo (Guitar Buildings) and winning three Architectural awards for my engineered timber family home in 2002 cemented my belief in the power of collaborating with builders and other consultants.

Mr Thomson is the co-author ‘The Environmental Brief – Pathways to Green Design’ – which is available for purchase on Amazon.

Some of the work I’m proudest of is projects and business ventures advancing sustainable design. This includes being president of the AGDF (Australian Green Development Forum), establishing an eco-consulting business called EcoLateral, and working for all three tiers of government. Founding Eco Effective Solutions in 2009, which continues today, has provided me with a platform to pursue further research, design, and education in sustainable design. As an adjunct professor at QUT, I had the opportunity to contribute to the foundation of the Centre for Subtropical Design, where we established subtropical building principles, an essential tool for increasing resilience to our changing climate.

Delivering Green Star Faculty services for the GBCA from 2007 to 2017 broadened my international expertise, including travelling to Singapore in 2018 to deliver EarthCheck sustainability training. I hold both EarthCheck and Green Star Accredited Design Professional qualifications. Joining Responsible Wood as an Independent Director in 2017 and becoming a Board Member of Micah Projects in 2018 has allowed me to contribute to sustainable forest management and social justice initiatives, highlighting the importance of addressing both environmental and social aspects of sustainability.

Sorelle Henricus: How have you observed the landscape of sustainable building and design evolve throughout your career? 

Mark Thomson: Initially, sustainable building was about sustaining our societies’ quality of life on this planet”. Currently, it is about the challenge to our future existence resulting from unsustainable human impacts. I sincerely believe that sustainable buildings will assist in improving our lifestyles by encouraging us to be more attuned to our changing climate. Regenerating current building stocks, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and building new positive developments is the way forward. 

Sorelle HenricusCould you give an example of some of the early building projects in the region that adopted sustainable practices that are still relevant today? 

Mark Thomson: Sustainable building practices just make common sense! Here are some lessons that stay relevant:

  • Building smart, not large: Reducing building size and considering flexible or modular solutions can reduce construction energy use. 
  • Choosing low-toxic materials: Specifying materials such as wood can facilitate extending a building’s life with improved indoor air quality for a healthier environment.
  • Avoid high-embodied-energy materials: materials such as steel, aluminium and engineered concrete can be reduced by the adoption of low-carbon (timber) alternative systems to reduce the cost of energy over a building’s life. 
  • Minimise waste: Reducing building waste is another benefit of sustainable building, particularly when timber is used. Timber waste is typically more reusable than steel, aluminium or concrete waste and involves a lower carbon cost process for reusing or recycling than most other materials. 
  • Embracing the circular economy: Sustainable buildings using circular economy principles reduce carbon emissions by focusing on supply chains, which typically lower transport distances and costs.

Sorelle HenricusSingapore has emerged as a strong location for the adoption of certified timber. Could you share more about some of the architectural features of a few of your favourite buildings in Singapore? 

Mark ThomsonOpened in 2005, the central Singapore National Library Building is one of Singapore’s early bioclimatic designs. I first visited this building in 2014 and returning nine years later, I was impressed by how it is still loved by Singapore citizens and how its skygardens have influenced many other projects during Singapore’s “Garden City” evolution. Architect Ken Yeang incorporated 14 landscaped gardens in the complex. Collectively cultivated with 120 species of tropical plants. These green spaces help to regulate the daytime temperature in the building. The project received a Green Mark Platinum Award, evidence of its ecological design implementation and pioneering innovation.

More than 110 of the Kampung Admiralty Tower precinct is covered by green spaces Wood Central 1 1024x768.jpg
Last year, Mr Thomson covered Singapore’s Kampung Admiralty, the World Architecture Festival’s 2018 Building of the Year for Wood Central. (Photo credit: Darreh Soh, Patrick Bingham-Hall and K Kopter)

Ken Yeang’s second Singapore project, Soleris, near One-North MRT station, also achieved the prestigious Green Mark Platinum Rating for its ecological design approach. I’ve always wanted to understand this building after being intrigued by Ken Yeung’s approach to ecological buildings. Yeang’s design and building approach cleverly delivers innovative hydrology concepts, practising efficient energy solutions and constructed ecosystems. His work is worthy of further study due to his understanding of ecosystems and the reduction of building impact on local biodiversity. The Soleris spiral ramp with its deep overhangs and concentrations of shade plants is an important element in the ambient cooling of the building’s façade, plus it enhances local biodiversity. The continuous soil in the spiral gardens allows for fluid movement of organisms and plant species between all vegetated areas of the building. This unique ecological design concept contributes to the health of the local ecosystem via a net positive ecological impact. 

Yeang’s design and building approach cleverly delivers innovative hydrology concepts, practising efficient energy solutions and constructed ecosystems. His work is worthy of further study due to his understanding of ecosystems and the reduction of building impact on local biodiversity.

My first visit to NTU did not disappoint my Architectural instincts, and I hope to return with more time on my next visit to Singapore. The hilly campus has a wealth of architecturally designed buildings, each with different approaches to design, educational interpretation and sustainability objectives.

The first building I visited, named after the Greek Goddess of Earth “Gaia,” was the University Business School building, designed by Toyo Ito and Associates with local studio RSP Architects. It is the largest wooden building in Asia in relation to the volume of timber used and uses PEFC-certified timber in addition to achieving PEFC project certification. Its two gently curving blocks have beams and columns built from glulam (glue-laminated timber) whilst floors and solar shading utilise CLT (cross-laminated timber).

The NTU University building, known as Gaia, is Asia’s largest mass timber building. Last year, Wood Central covered the project in a special case study. Footage courtesy of @NTUsg.

The Gaia building is the second mass timber building by Toyo Ito on the NTU campus. The timber elements are largely exposed, being visible inside and out. Large windows and skylights allow light to bounce around open areas, whilst terraces, air wells and multi-story theatre spaces use timber to achieve a naturally warm interior ambience. The extensive use of vegetation inside and immediately adjacent to the building results in a powerful biophilic design solution. Japanese attention to joints and details produces a simple but refined building program where users move smoothly via long colonnaded central walkways.

Sorelle Henricus: What are the main challenges you’ve encountered in promoting sustainable building practices within the construction industry?

Mark Thomson: People often tell you what they think you want to hear, glossing over any contentious issues so it’s important to follow up verbal advice with written confirmation. If it’s not written down on or presented on a company document, it’s not likely to exist, hence beware of verbal representations which could be inaccurate. It can be helpful to deal directly with the correct people in the supply chain who are focused on technical details.  

Understand the “chain of custody” concept, for timber to be considered sustainable, it needs to be sourced from sustainably managed forests and it is a critical and dependable method to ensure that sustainable forestry management has featured in the history of timber and wood products used for projects. It’s important to ensure that project timing has adequate material sourcing time allowances. Sustainably managed timber is popular and is not likely to be “on the shelves”, while often, unsustainable timber is! 

Sorelle Henricus: In your experience, what incentives or policies have been effective in encouraging the adoption of sustainable construction methods and certified timber materials?

Mark Thomson: Here’s my list of what’s been most helpful:

  1. Regulations and Mandates
  • Procurement policies of councils, governments and authorities citing the adoption of ESD (ecological sustainable development) principles. 
  • Contractually mandated green building rating tools; an assurance that the project is contributing to environmental conservation and economic sustainability. 
  • New legislation like the Illegal Timber Act and Modern Slavery Regulations that ensure ethical and responsible sourcing.

2. Market Drivers

  • Increase of ESG (environment, social and governance) reporting.
  • Growing awareness of climate change by various Not for Profit groups as well as community awareness around the waste and the need to recycle. 

3. Innovation 

  • The emergence of a bioeconomy offering non-toxic, renewable materials presents exciting alternatives to harmful chemicals.
  • Awareness of low carbon materials and the need to use lower carbon solutions in building to meet community expectations.

Sorelle HenricusHow has Australia’s early adoption of certified PEFC timber influenced its utilisation in building with timber across the APAC region, and what role do you foresee it playing in the continued growth of structural timber use in the years ahead?

Mark Thomson: In hindsight, it has been very important. 

In 1999 PEFC was formed as a European Council, which became an international Program in 2003. Australia joined the alliance in 2002, at which time Responsible Wood was formed to continue developing and managing standards for timber and wood products sourced from sustainably managed products. As PEFC quickly grew into being a global authority on sustainable forest management, its certification offerings were preferred by small, non-industrial, government-managed and family forest owners. Australia’s adoption of PEFC standards has aligned its previously established Australian Forestry Management standards to international standards, allowing greater APAC education and trading opportunities. Chain of Custody adoption has increased, and certainty now exists for APAC building elements to be sourced from sustainably managed forests.

As the world’s first architect to be appointed to the board of a forest certification scheme, Mr Thomson has long supported certification. Footage courtesy of @WoodCentralAu.

Australia is well placed to provide high-quality and competitive structural timber for low carbon buildings to meet the increasing demand for green buildings. Buildings being designed now, are embracing concepts such as biophilic design (connecting to nature), circular economy (seeking sustainable supply chains), and regenerative building (buildings that are designed and operated to reverse ecological damage plus have a net-positive impact on the natural environment). Australia has a proud history of engineered structural timber use in commercial and residential buildings, and now it is adopting solutions such as CLT use and Parametric design, for future sustainable development work. Australian Projects have been successful at the World Architectural Festival over recent years, particularly since 2017 when PEFC initiated the Best Use of Certified Timber Award.


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