Timber industry offers help to house Covid refugees

May 1, 2020

Timber-frame homes and isolation units could be mass produced in panel form to house people moved out of informal settlements and recovering Covid patients. Photo: Eco Log Homes

Sawmilling South Africa (SSA) and the Institute for Timber Construction South Africa (ITC-SA) have offered the South African Government their combined resources, skills and expertise as part of their sector’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

One of the many pressures that the pandemic has placed on South Africa is the pressing need to thin out densely populated informal settlements to slow the spread of the virus. This means urgently providing alternative housing and infrastructure while at the same time addressing the need to shelter people who must remain in isolation or quarantine.

SSA and the ITC-SA have approached Government with a proposal that timber be seen as one of the construction materials of choice, and as a longer term solution that will transcend the current crisis and immediate needs.

There are several compelling reasons in support of timber. “To begin with, South Africa has a ready supply of sustainably grown timber, a product which is not only accessible but is light, easy to transport and lends itself to rapid construction,” says SSA executive director Roy Southey.

Wood is a renewable resource that can be used to build strong, durable houses. Photo: Ludwig Sevenster

In addition, timber-frame homes can be mass produced in panel form and speedily erected by an existing construction workforce that can be easily upskilled to assemble pre-manufactured, factory-checked units that not only address the current crisis, but provide permanent homes.

Around 70% of people in the developed world live in timber-frame structures, yet South Africans have, in many ways, been conditioned to believe that building with brick and mortar is the only way.

Correctly treated, wood is in fact highly durable and performs better than many other materials in the event of fire. Apart from complying with most municipal regulations, it also offers exceptional thermal insulation, is extremely cost-effective and is an environmentally lighter option.

“Timber is a valuable and long-term sustainable source of material ideally suited for use in high volume construction projects. It is also a renewable resource. Only 6% of trees from 1.2 million hectares sustainably managed plantations are harvested annually while the planting of saplings outstrips felling by a measure of 2:1,” Southey says.

Current output of commercially grown pine and eucalyptus timber in South Africa exceeds 2.1 million cubic metres and the sawmilling industry alone employs more than 30 000 people, mainly in rural areas.

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