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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

Bianca Wilcox

The Sustainability Potential of Timber as a Building Material in South Africa

Timber has been used as a building material for centuries, and has recently gained popularity as a result of its implied environmental benefits. However, the environmental benefit of timber has yet to be realised within South Africa with only approximately 1% of buildings being comprised of this material. In light of South Africa having an energy, and subsequently greenhouse gas (GHG), intensive industry especially in the production of common building materials, timber presents a great opportunity for achieving a reduction in GHG emissions.


The central aim of this research was to evaluate the potential of timber, used as a building material, in contributing to the attainment of South Africa’s GHG emissions reduction target as submitted to the United Nations (UN). In doing so, the feasibility of an up scaled timber industry, fitting to the context of South Africa, was assessed. This was achieved by analysing emergent themes relating to the three dimensions of a sustainable development framework, which are environmental, social, as well as economic aspects. The findings were based on secondary data, as well as industry insights obtained from interviews.


In the findings it was found that the proposition, of an up scaled timber industry, could be encouraged through a number of potential drivers. Drivers for a greater demand includes the specification of timber as the material choice for social infrastructure, the increased popularity of green building certification schemes, as well as the impending implementation of a carbon tax policy which would make timber more cost competitive. Furthermore, the use of timber and the growth of the associated industry would be directly aligned with several governmental agendas that look to increase job opportunities, create a green economy, but most important achieve GHG emissions as mentioned before.


However, the biggest impediment to the realisation of this sustainable strategy are the issues over plantations’ intensive water use as well as the limited capacity of plantations to expand and supply timber to meet a desired increase in demand. Nevertheless, timber should remain to be seen as a long-term sustainable development strategy for South Africa and with increased awareness, brought upon by the concerted efforts of the industry and government, and the realisation of the plantation’s full potential, timber will be able to play an important role in the greening of the construction industry in the future.