As the construction sector continues to be associated with energy-intensive practices responsible for excessive carbon emissions, the consumption of largely nonrenewable materials, and environmental degradation, numerous governments are shifting towards greener building practices, e.g., References [1
]. One component of this shift focuses on the materials used in building construction, since material efficiency impacts energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions [7
]. Lately, attention has been placed on the role of wood, as it is a renewable building material that can contribute to sustainable development goals [8
]. In countries like European Union (E.U.) states and Canada, key policies are linked to the rise of wood construction in the building sector [8
]. In the United States (U.S.), legislative backing for the development of wood construction was seen through the introduction of the Timber Innovation Act of 2017 [11
]. Consequently, several of these policy initiatives focus on the development of wooden multistory construction (WMC), that is, buildings of four or more stories whose primary loadbearing frame is made of wood or engineered wood products (EWP).
Despite such sustainability agendas, the diffusion of WMC has been slow due to what is described as a path-dependent construction regime [12
]. A recent metastudy identified seven regularly cited barriers in WMC: higher building costs, lack of wood construction-industry expertise, challenging or nonexisting standardization of building codes, skepticism regarding wood-material durability, physical and technical challenges of wood, the traditional culture of the construction industry, and a lack of EWP availability [15
While the metastudy provides a firm literature overview about the development of WMC, it also acknowledges that research attention has been focused predominantly on industrial actors (e.g., architects and engineers). This limits the scope of discussion on potential drivers and barriers of WMC diffusion, as there are other important stakeholder groups influencing urban-housing development (e.g., end users, residents, local-level civil servants and politicians, etc.). The current study attempts to bridge this knowledge gap by providing information from the perspectives of municipal civil servants who work in city planning and development leadership positions.
Finland was chosen as a case study given that the national government has a long history of engaging with wood construction through promotional and developmental campaigns aiming to adopt WMC into the domestic housing market [16
]. Currently, the national bioeconomy strategy aims to foster the growth of domestic forest industries through value-added products [18
] and sustainable and renewable material alternatives [20
] that lower the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions [21
]. These objectives are also driving the national agenda for promoting WMC [25
]. In 2011, support for WMC culminated with the major legislative change that permitted WMC buildings of up to seven stories for construction. While earlier attempts at integrating WMC into the multistory housing market failed to normalize [13
], the current signs are more promising. Yet, one estimate predicts that only 6% of dwellings in the 2018 housing market will be WMC [26
]. Another report indicates that between 2018–2020 approximately 183 WMC projects will be initiated—twice as many as were started between 2010–2017 [27
That government regulations promoting sustainability are the main impetus for the rise of WMC into the Finnish housing market [10
] is perhaps not surprising given the top-down approach with which the bioeconomy transition is being realized in Finland [28
]. This is noticeably distinct considering that material innovations in the construction sector traditionally stem from either a desire by the end user to change the product or from a desire by the builder to affect cost and material availability [29
]. Therefore, information from municipal stakeholders regarding their perceptions or preferences toward WMC would be useful to unraveling its future potential. Unfortunately, such data are very limited, and not only in the international literature [14
], but in the Finnish context as well. Studies from Finland have focused on topical lenses (e.g., technical innovation, the role of sustainability) as opposed to providing a comprehensive view on general stakeholder attitudes, perceptions, or preferences for WMC [10
]. In addition, those studies usually discuss the role of public actors as drivers for WMC diffusion [36
], but rarely explore how these actors perceive their own role and engagement in this context.
Framing civil-servant viewpoints is necessary given the responsibility they hold to steer city-planning objectives. According to the Ministry of Environment’s Land Use and Building Act, municipalities are authorized to oversee and approve the planning of all zoning maps in Finland [40
]. With this authority comes the capacity to force builders to comply with material preferences (like wood) by decreeing zoning regulations. As an example, this power was legitimized by the Supreme Court of Finland in 2015, when the court upheld the decision by the City of Helsinki to zone the Honkasuo neighborhood to be built from wood [41
]. Yet, regardless of this legal capacity, and the national government push for WMC development, most municipalities rarely enact such regulations.
What cannot be assumed is that the slow diffusion of WMC in Finland directly results from limited municipal support, or from difficulties pushing through WMC zoning plans. Likewise, what drives local government to support WMC diffusion does not likely hinge solely on national-level strategies and aims (e.g., the Bioeconomy Strategy [25
]). Instead, it would be beneficial to determine how civil servants individually perceive residential WMC, and how they comprehend their role and capacity to implement WMC within city development plans. By defining individual perceptions, a broader understanding of what impacts WMC diffusion in residential urban development can be assessed.
2. Materials and Methods
A qualitative approach was used to determine the perceptions held by municipal civil servants. Semistructured interviews were chosen as the best method to gather data since the process allows for the interactions and diverse perspectives of the interviewer and participant to foster the creation of new themes apart from those originally being explored [44
]. Given the limited number of perceptional studies on WMC, it was anticipated that new themes could arise.
The interview questionnaire was designed using Ajzen’s [45
] theory of planned behavior (TPB) as a general framework (Table 1
). TPB measures a participant’s intention to perform a behavior based on three antecedents: personal attitudes, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control. Here, the behavior component of the TPB framework is the implementation of WMC projects and the attitude component refers to the civil servants favorable or unfavorable appraisal of performing the behavior. Furthermore, the subjective norm component refers to social pressures that motivate a civil servant to engage (or not to engage) in the behavior, and behavioral control refers to the civil servants perceived difficulty to engage in the behavior [44
While TPB studies are usually carried out through quantitative analysis, qualitative TPB studies (i.e., elucidation studies) are used to explore commonly held beliefs in a research population prior to implementing a qualitative study [46
]. Because the scope of this paper is to report civil-servant perceptions and then distribute a follow-up survey based on the topics discussed by civil servants, this framework was also found most suitable for the research. It should also be noted that the results of this paper include only the analysis of the attitude components [45
] from the interviews. Thus, the analysis of the subjective norm and perceived behavioral control components are excluded, but, together with the attitude component investigated in this study, would form the precursor for a more detailed analysis on the subject.
Contact details for civil servants were gathered through professional references or online webpages. Eleven interviews were conducted between May 2017 and January 2018. These participants represent six large-scale municipalities of Finland: Espoo (making up part of the capital-region metropolis and the second fastest-growing municipality in Finland in the last five years); Helsinki (the capital and largest metropolitan city); Seinäjoki (a growing city with a strong wood-industry region); Turku (the country’s oldest city that also enjoys a strong industry and service sector); and Uusikaupunki (a small city with a booming industry sector that has resulted in both a 2% increase in population in 2016–2017 and a high demand for residential housing). For the last five years, all these municipalities, except Rauma, have been experiencing an uptrend in population [47
]. Together, these municipalities comprise roughly one-fifth of the population of Finland (Table 2
The professional roles of the civil servants interviewed included high-level strategic planning and development positions or project-management positions (Table 3
). For the sake of anonymity, participant administrative titles were not used in conjunction with their corresponding municipality. The semistructured questionnaire was presented to participants prior to the interview. All interviews were held in English at the respondents’ office. The average length of the interviews was 60 min. All interviews were audio-recorded then transcribed.
The interview transcripts were analyzed using Schrier’s [48
] method for qualitative content analysis (QCA). This method identifies themes within the data and simultaneously accounts for the frequencies with which said themes present themselves across the data [48
]. Phenomena discussed in the interviews are deductively and inductively grouped and categorized into a “coding framework”. The resulting framework is then systematically used across the data to divide the transcripts into units of codes based on the subcategories of the framework. Then, each unit of code is grouped under no more than one subcategory from each main category. This procedure quantifies how often a subcategory appears in the data. As a result, the beliefs commonly mentioned by the civil servants are grouped into categories and the appearance of categories can be counted across the data.
To ensure that the coding framework is reliable at capturing the codes into the appropriate subcategory, a consistency check was performed. A reliable framework should work to ensure that units of code always end up in the same subcategory, regardless of the person using the coding framework, or at what time the coding framework is being used. In this study, a reliability check was performed on 79 units of code, and attitudes were matched with the original category in 83% of codes, which can be deemed as sufficient in level.
This qualitative interview study aimed to increase the scope of WMC research by exploring the perceptions of municipal civil servants regarding ongoing and future WMC development in Finland. According to results, the interviewed civil servants perceive WMC and its building technologies as an interesting and sustainable solution to improve urban citizen lifestyles while supporting local and national businesses and economies. Many of the revealed themes have been previously mentioned in the literature [10
], while some new considerations were developed. Gosselin et al. [15
] had cited sustainability, technical performance, cost reduction, building speed, and aesthetics as the major motivations for using wood in multistory construction, and all those topics were discussed in this study. Markedly, interviewed civil servants were interested in WMC because of certain benefits other municipal stakeholders might gain from WMC diffusion. For example, the motivation to engage in WMC planning might stem from a desire to support the use of locally sourced wood, to support Finnish WMC industries, or to use WMC as a disruptive solution to bolster higher-quality construction and improved quality-of-life aspects for end users. This distinct aspect may be due to the limited inclusion of public-sector opinion in previous WMC research, as Gosselin et al. [15
] noted that opinions about WMC vary according to the role of the stakeholder being interviewed.
One surprising nuance from this study was the lack of robust conversation about the sustainable characteristics of wood. In previous research, sustainability has been cited as a driver for WMC diffusion in Finland [10
], and today it continues to be referred to as a sustainable building material [39
]. In this study, wood was primarily referred to as “ecological”, leaving a lot of room for interpreting exactly what this means. Furthermore, references to sustainability were brief. It could be that civil servants did not expand on the “ecological” qualities of wood because they thought it was self-evident, but future studies should clarify how municipalities view sustainability, both holistically and as a driver for WMC diffusion.
While there are benefits to implementing WMC, interviewed civil servants also perceived multiple barriers inhibiting WMC diffusion. The perception is that there are still too few WMC industry actors and weak regulatory policy to support WMC project implementation. These viewpoints make WMC seem too expensive and risky to undertake. Only one civil servant ended up discussing the necessity for municipalities to force builders to comply with the use of wood materials through municipal zoning plans; instead, civil servants mostly agree that their directive to engage in WMC development should somehow be coming from a higher authority. Furthermore, without instruction to include WMC into city plans, civil servants remain unmotivated to access WMC information and learn more about the topic. This lack of leadership seems to be a persistent topic [37
] that needs overcoming. All in all, it could be said that a circular chicken-and-egg scenario has formed: WMC industry actors cannot penetrate the construction market and therefore municipalities will not solicit WMC projects due to perceived riskiness, but the lack of WMC demand is also diminishing the capacity for WMC industry actors to enter the construction market.
One mentioned avenue for overcoming barriers was the prospect of consumer demand being an increasingly strong driver for changing the future housing market. Yet, interviewees also mentioned that they lack information about citizen housing desires, and that existing housing development platforms like the public planning process system have been inadequate in assisting them to gather such information. With this in mind, one might ask how end users can demand WMC given both the limited effort by public actors and developers to bridge low consumer awareness [36
] and the small number of WMC dwellings on the market to which to expose citizens. It could be that consumer demand cannot materialize in increasing WMC diffusion until such aspects are fully addressed. Therefore, research into the determinants of consumer demand for WMC, and its capacity to shift residential housing development planning objectives, is needed.
In the end, it can be said that these civil servants did not see WMC buildings as being of poor quality or unsafe products. Instead, they discussed how there are market- and industry-related aspects hindering WMC diffusion. This substantiates a more positive outlook for future evolution in thinking towards the engineered wood products used in WMC, given previous concerns with WMC aspects like quality and fire safety [36
]. Of course, it is worth mentioning that, since none of these civil servants admitted to being personally disinterested in WMC, there may also be a bias range of attitudes obtained from this study.
Finally, one should note that the attitudes shared in this study cannot be generalized beyond the scope of these interviewees. The relative weight of importance between favorable or unfavorable attitudes driving or hindering WMC also cannot be ascertained. For example, we cannot say that supporting a local industry is a relatively larger driver for WMC diffusion than using sustainable building material. The creation of a quantitative and well-covering survey can assist in establishing relative significance between the barriers and benefits of WMC while also deepening comprehension on the perceptions and roles of municipal civil servants involved in the development of the WMC market. The principal objective of this study was to outline the attitudes held by civil servants, and the resulting information will be used to build a follow-up quantitative survey study. This survey would enable full-scale analysis of the TPB components (i.e., attitudes, subjective norm, and perceived behavioral control) and how they influence municipal civil-servant behaviors.