Change the world


After almost 150 years of concrete and steel, the world is returning to wood. This time around it is a revolutionary use of wood called Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) that is transforming building construction globally.

By April 2021 Nelson Mandela University will have constructed a CLT building that is set to influence a new direction for design and construction in South Africa. CLT and mass timber construction is already making significant inroads in Europe, North America, Australia and Scandinavia as the low carbon, sustainable, economically competitive construction technology of choice.

"To advance the adoption of CLT in South Africa we have established the CLT Engagement Unit as a transdisciplinary entity in the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology (EBET). We are partnering with an Italian construction company Innovhousing, and a growing number of university and industry partners that are frontrunner adopters of CLT construction, including the UK, Canada, Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland," says the CLT Engagement Entity coordinator, Dr Ossie Franks.

"With extensive work on the design and design approval in 2019, and considerable input from Nelson Mandela University's Deputy Vice-Chancellor: People & Operations, Lebogang Hashatse, we secured Council approval for the University to commit R4.4-million to the CLT building project. Innovhousing has invested R6.4-million."

Innovhousing benefits from having a showcase of CLT construction for South Africa's public and private sector, with the aim of promoting the CLT building technology and developing the industry in this country.

"This is the right technology for the times," says Innovhousing's founder and CEO, Eugenio Bin. "South Africa has a massive carbon footprint and a significant housing and building backlog. CLT offers the solution as it is a carbon neutral, sustainable way of building."

CLT stores carbon and the timber is sourced from sustainably managed forests. Conventional concrete and steel buildings emit excessive amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases, and the extraction of natural resources such as limestone for concrete is highly destructive to the natural environment.

In contrast to a conventional build, each CLT panel is a structural component and the CLT structure maintains its form in intense fire heat, whereas steel and concrete tend to yield, bend and crumble. There is also an inherent fire resistance in heavy or mass timber because of the external layer of charred wood that occurs during a fire, which protects the inner structure of the beam or panel.

Innovhousing architect Alessandro Zuanni and  wood structural engineer Franco Piva have designed the two-storey 350m², multi-use CLT building. The entire building is being prefabricated to the highest standards in Europe as the South African industry is still in its infancy. It will be delivered to site, flat-pack furniture style. The constructed building is identical to the design, down to the millimeter and the building can be erected on site in a matter of days. Very importantly there is an inherent fire resistance in heavy or mass timber. In the event of a fire, the external layer of wood chars; this protects the inner structure of the beam or panel.

"The University will use the building to advance knowledge, research and skills about CLT and mass timber construction, incorporate it in our curriculum and transdisciplinary research, including engineering, architecture, construction management sciences, and business and economic sciences," says Dr Franks.

"We are also creating a community of practice between different faculties within Nelson Mandela University, other educational institutions and role players from industry such as Forestry South Africa, Sawmilling South Africa, South African Wood Preservers Association, Institute for Timber Construction, National Home Builders Registration Council (NHBRC) and the Department of Trade and Industry."

Sustainability engineer at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Andre Hefer, is overseeing the infrastructure and sustainability side of the build. Overseeing the development of the building is Emma Ayesu-Koranteng who is doing her PhD on rooting CLT in the South African construction industry and tailoring qualifications in CLT construction, with learnings gained from leading international universities in the field.

CLT presents a major opportunity for new industry and job creation. Professor Jos Louw from the School of Natural Resource Management is pursuing this with the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF).

"There are 22 000ha of formerly forested land in the southern and Western Cape forestry regions, currently standing empty," he explains. "The re-afforestation of these areas could serve as a catalyst for the CLT industry, economic growth and employment. We are partnering with national government on CLT initiatives as an environmentally sustainable industry.

"A conservative estimate, based on current industry practice and figures of yield, indicates that the non-afforestation of the 22 000ha has resulted in an opportunity cost of approximately R100 million per annum for the economy of the southern Cape alone. This and other expanses of government-owned forestry land are crying out for a new business model," says Louw.

"With the go ahead to reforest these areas and revive the industry all the way to the sawmill, we could then add the CLT plant which would be a fairly straightforward process. Upstream and downstream a lot of jobs can be created through this renewable industry. We need to recognise the many advantages of CLT and stimulate the culture of using wood for construction in South Africa. Our per capita use of timber is currently up to ten times less than Europe and the USA." 

Source: Nelson Mandela University

This article appeared on Forestry in SA's webpage in July2020:

Contact information
Ms Milisa Piko
Communications Manager: George Campus
Tel: 044 801 5098