Bioconstruction awakens in Spain


Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, most societies have forged their progress with their backs to nature, establishing an almost absolute dissociation between natural environments and urbanised spaces. However, at the end of the last century, global warming highlighted some of the negative effects of human action on the planet. According to forecasts, by the year 2050, the world’s population will be close to 10 billion inhabitants, with exponential urban growth located, above all, in countries such as Asia and Africa. The architect Vicente Guallart warns that this demographic increase would be equivalent to building a city of five million inhabitants every month for 30 years, and makes it clear that “if we do as we did in the 20th century, we will destroy the planet. Now, we have a great opportunity to develop new forms of economy and use design and architecture to make a better world”.

For many experts, the Covid-19 pandemic may be the turning point to change the model and, in the construction sector in particular, to opt for more sustainable processes in line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda, connected to the circular bioeconomy.

Buildings account for 40% of energy consumption in Spain and are responsible for approximately 36% of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. During the construction process alone, they generate 65% of the emissions of their entire useful life and it is therefore necessary that all construction elements evolve to avoid their carbon footprint. Hence the importance, says Guallart, of starting to promote the use of natural materials, such as wood, which he defines as a “CO2 sink”. “It has grown thanks to the existence of sun and water and, in its growth, it has been absorbing CO2. Therefore, wooden buildings, rather than generating emissions, accumulate them”, explains the expert, who adds that if, in addition, the principles of energy certifications such as those of the Passive Haus seal are followed, which allows an 80% reduction in energy consumption during its useful life, it is possible to achieve houses that, in general, have zero emissions or even negative emissions, because they can provide green energies to the surrounding buildings.

Bioconstruction is still an incipient sector in Spain. While in America and northern Europe there is a great tradition of wood construction (Norway has the tallest building in the world built with cross-laminated timber), in our country the first industrialised wood housing or equipment buildings are now beginning to be built at no extra cost compared to traditional constructions, and architectural studios are beginning to use it with a high quality design.

The need for an industry of its own
But in order to promote and consolidate a new way of building that is more respectful of the environment and also of people’s health and well-being, experts agree that it is necessary to develop an industry of our own. Guallart regrets that in our country there is a large amount of wood, especially in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Galicia and Castile, but until now the forests have not been managed to produce wood for construction: “If the forests are not managed sustainably, they degrade and burn. Therefore, adding value to forest management and thus developing a construction industry using wood or natural materials is a great opportunity to contribute to a green economy, helping to fight climate change, and reducing economic dependence on oil-supplying countries.

Incorporating the use of wood in construction processes would also make it possible to modernise the building sector with industrialised procedures and coordinate comprehensive strategies for the production cycle that include everything from the exploitation of forests to the completion of the entire life cycle of the building and its recycling. However, in addition to managing forests more efficiently, this requires support at all levels of the value chain: from the creation and extension of forestry operations where feasible to a plan to develop the necessary infrastructures to make them competitive, technical assistance and advice in the creation or expansion of industrialised wood plants, as well as to developers, planners and professionals involved in the final prescription of construction materials and dissemination campaigns on the environmental value of the use of wood and its technical suitability, with training at all levels.