“Eco-material”, a common term since the 1990s, entered the French dictionary in 2019, where it is defined as a “construction material whose use respects the environment”. It includes stone and raw earth (geosourced, mineral-based materials), as well as wood, straw, hemp and reeds (biosourced materials that come from plants or animals). For the construction industry, which is responsible for one third of domestic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a June 2019 study by ADEME and Carbone 4, these natural materials are a major source of interest. Extracting, harvesting or sawing these materials requires relatively little energy, and they can be recycled, reused and processed with a lower environmental impact than other materials.
Their lifespan is counted in centuries: even the straw used in Feuillette House, which was built in Montargis, Loiret in 1920, still maintains its original properties. And to top it all off, some geosourced or biosourced materials have excellent thermal properties in terms of insulation and heat capacity. The 2020 Environmental Regulation (RE 2020), which enters into effect in summer 2021, “should make the use of wood and biosourced materials”, which are capable of storing carbon, “almost systematic by 2030, including for individual homes and small apartment buildings”, according to the press pack issued by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition. This process should reduce buildings’ carbon footprints throughout their lifecycles, from construction to demolition, while also ensuring comfort during winter and intense heat.
“At the same time, a government label will allow public or private contracting authorities to anticipate the future requirements of RE 2020, set an example, and serve as a prelude to future buildings farther down the line.” These measures will trigger a radical shift in building types and construction methods, “which will require site workers and tradesmen to alter their practices and undergo training. This is particularly true when it comes to using wood and biosourced materials, which will substantially change how construction sites are designed, supplied and managed.”
However, a quarter of the country’s 2050 housing stock has not yet been built, according to projections released by the Ministry for the Ecological Transition (to address concerns raised by the decrease in household size and demographic growth), and multiple long-term economic issues have arisen. First, the need to supply eco-builders with eco-materials. There will be no shortage of earth, straw, hemp and reeds, according to their respective industries. However, the country’s 500 stone quarries cannot be endlessly tapped, and there are serious threats to forests, according to the April 2020 report from the Court of Auditors (Developing the Forest-Timber Industry, Its Economic and Environmental Performance).
These threats include climate disruption, an excess number of large game animals (which impede forest replenishment), and unfavourable opinions toward hunting and logging. This restructuring of the forest-timber industry, which is running a deficit due to log exports (particularly to China) and imports of processed products such as CLT, is vital.
Only ambitious public action will enable this reorganisation, notes the Court of Auditors. These recommendations—a new environmental regulation, substantial financial assistance—have been followed. On 22 December, Julien Denormandie, the Minister of Agriculture, announced a 200-million-euro relief package to replant 50 million trees in the country’s forests. On 16 December 2020, BPI France launched a 70-million-euro Wood and Eco-Materials Fund to prop up the industry. The ball is in their court.