Towards better housing health – with the help of new wood-based materials

Blog post
Katariina Torvinen
baby crawling on a wood floor

Wood-based building materials support the wellbeing of people and the environment. Their emissions are low both in use and during the manufacturing phase, and in the future they may even purify indoor air.

Did you know that we spend, on average, 90% of our lives in built indoor environments? The quality of indoor air thus inevitably affects our wellbeing.

Good ventilation as well as suitable temperature and humidity are a good starting point, but they alone are not enough. Some people experience symptoms while indoors, and the cause is often sought from moisture damage, but studies also point to building materials and chemicals.

Wood is traditionally considered a healthy option in construction and interior design. However, wood construction involves insulation, coating agents and adhesives, many of which emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, into the room air long after the construction work has been completed. Fortunately, substitute materials have already been developed – and they, too, are made of wood.

Adhesives, coating agents and insulation are already being created from wood

Wood’s own glue, lignin, which is separated when pulp is cooked, has proved to be an excellent raw material. Lignin can already be made into low-emission adhesives that are suitable, for example, for wooden boards such as plywood and chipboard, as well as for furniture. Another promising raw material is nanocellulose processed from pulp, which is suitable as a binding agent in paints, among other things. 

Many would also like to replace glass wool as well as EPS insulation boards, or polystyrene. A suitable alternative is being sought from wood fibre and traditional hemp, among others. You see, wood fibres and other natural fibres can be foam-formed, i.e. made into a porous, rollable sheet using a paper machine.

Wood fibres can also be sprayed, which has proved to be a handy way of creating soundproofing elements. And there is no need to limit the use of wood to insulation, coating agents and adhesives: wood composite can even replace porcelain in sinks and wall tiles. In composites, wood fibre reinforces fossil or bio-based plastic.
 

Active wood material cleans the air and measures moisture

I am drawn by the idea of building materials that do their job without harming people and the environment while also doing some additional good. For example, an active wall coating could grab harmful particles from the room air and create something useful from them. After all, wood fibre yarn that captures drug residues from wastewater has already been developed.  

Tree bark is a serious treasure trove as well. Tannin and other valuable ingredients that protect the growing tree from microbes can be extracted from it. These natural antioxidants can be utilised in future coating agents and other building materials in, for example, hospital environments. Therefore, wood could even help us mitigate disasters, like pandemics.

The sensitivity of wood to moisture could also be increasingly utilised in construction. Residents of log houses know that wooden walls absorb moisture as the humidity rises, and release it comfortably as the room air becomes drier. In the future, wood-based material could serve as a hygrometer as well. Of course, sensors can also be embedded in these new materials. For example, we have manufactured foam-formed insulation material that reacts to the noise level with LED lights. 

Shrinking the carbon footprint of buildings

In addition to increasing housing health, new wood-based building materials are a natural and sustainable choice for the environment as well. Trees bind carbon as they grow, and wood products continue to store it.

Furthermore, the production of planks, boards and new wood-based materials produces less carbon dioxide emissions than other building materials, starting from concrete and steel. Wood-based building materials are downright essential when aiming for a building with a small carbon footprint, or even one that is carbon-neutral. 
 

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