Green Cities: Timber is the disruption this industry needs
Willow Aliento | 9 March 2017
When you get timber design right, working with different professions, it’s like beautiful music – says UK architect Andrew Waugh. But timber buildings are also like a tsunami – the UK has 500 already and his firm is “run off its feet” with demand.
Designing with timber means learning to move away from a concrete and steel dominated model, according to UK architect Andrew Waugh, in Australia this week as part of a tour for Wood Solutions and as a speaker at Green Cities.
Tackling climate change means the shift is imperative.
Waugh told the Green Cities conference in Sydney this week that the first solid timber building his studio Waugh Thistleton engineered in 2003 was constructed in 27 day and was “carbon negative by 1000 tonnes”.
“We used very simple construction methods; it was very simple to build,” he said pointing out galvanized steel brackets to fix walls to floor in an image shown to the audience.
The company now has 19 projects either under construction or in the pipeline.
Its latest project at 67–71 Dalston Lane in North London was built with 2000 tonnes of material instead of the 10,000 tonnes that would have been required with concrete construction, not to mention 950 delivery to site that “would have been very nasty”.
As for the trees sacrificed? About 2500, so “about 3.1 trees per person, equivalent to the newspapers and magazines we give out on the underground every day.”
Waugh told The Fifth Estate in an interview that the momentum for timber in the UK is enormous.
“A tsunami is coming,” he said.
Since Murray Grove, the practice would initially win projects and then try and convince the client to do them in timber.
“Now people are coming to us and asking for timber buildings. We are run off our feet!
“It’s not just developers that are emphasising their environmental credentials, it’s everyone.”
In the UK there are currently around 500 CLT buildings.
Educational buildings have been a very important part of the development of the interest in CLT.
The government instigated a school building project 15 years ago that had very high environmental standards. Waugh said the result was a large number of CLT schools and other public buildings.
UK building code no barrier
Unlike Australia, where projects had up until recently found the building code a challenge to navigate for tall timber, Waugh says the UK building code poses no obstacles.
It has a performance-based code that is fairly flexible. Projects have to demonstrate they are suitable, but there are no explicit limits on how high timber can go.
In Australia, gaining greater traction for engineered timbers will be about volume, Waugh said.
In Europe, the growing volumes in terms of projects are reflected in the number of suppliers. In 2003 there was only one CLT manufacturer in Europe producing around 4000 cubic metres per year.
Now there are around 50 CLT manufacturers globally with a combined production volume of about one million cubic metres expected this year.
It can only be good for us
Studies carried out in Austria and Germany around the benefits of timber for the wellbeing of occupants, such as children in schools made of CLT, show reduced stress levels, reduced heart rates and improved learning.
“It comes back to the notion of biophilia. We are better off surrounded by natural materials.
“It is no different to if you compare a natural fibre to polyester. It feels better to wear natural materials. And it feels better to eat natural, unprocessed food.
“It is the same with this even more influential thing, our built environment.”
New design thinking is needed
Part of the transition to designing in timber is to avoid design as usual.
The first CLT buildings really emulated concrete structures, Waugh said.
They were limited by a “lexicon” of images to draw on for inspiration that came from concrete buildings.
“To break away from that is quite complex. We are getting better at that, and at finding how to express the material in a more exciting way.”
“We have had 100 years of concrete – it’s quite a weaning process.”
It is similar to the process concrete itself went through.
He pointed out that the first concrete buildings emulated stone buildings, before design styles emerged that replaced the local vernacular in places where stone had been the traditional material.
BIM is the key
In designing for CLT his practice is using building information modelling for every project. The design file evolved in BIM migrates right through to the cutting machines that prefabricate the building elements.
This adds the benefit of prefabrication and its accuracy to projects. Waugh said it also results in the architects working more closely with the structural engineers, mechanical engineers and other members of the delivery team, as everyone works with the same BIM model and files.
“That is really imperative.” It also gives the designers a much more developed understanding of what the other disciplines bring to the project.
“Learning what all the different instruments in the orchestra can do is the best way to get a beautiful piece of music.”
Industry thinking needs to shift
Waugh said the design and construction industry is taking time to change because it understands how concrete buildings work after a century of creating them.
Industry pricing is based on risk and commodity prices.
The big challenge in terms of expanding use of cross laminated timber construction was to change the perceptions held by designers, builders and developers.
“We have been building the same way for 100 years – with concrete,” he said.
But to reduce carbon emissions it was crucial the architecture and construction industries shift to using natural, replenishable materials.
The question then becomes, what kind of architecture will that produce?
“We are learning about the strengths and opportunities of engineered timber. It’s a work in progress, and that’s exciting.
“Not only more environmentally sensitive, people are happier [in timber buildings], they are healthy to live in, they are acoustically and thermally comfortable.”
People also have more material between themselves and the elements.
The standard UK construction of concrete columns, lightweight plasterboard over framing and a lightweight metal alloy cladding means there are only a few centimetres of materials between occupants and the outside world.
“These are not the robust buildings people deserve to live in,” Waugh said.
The engineered timber by comparison results in robust, solid structures.
Timber is the disruption this industry needs
“It is a rich industry – and it is ripe for disruption. Timber is the disruption this industry needs.”
Both business as usual architecture and its construction counterpart constitute a “broken, unhealthy industry that is contributing to climate change.”
Working with engineered timbers is an opportunity to shift this. All the European products are made from either Forestry Stewardship Council certified or PEFC-certified wood. That also means for every tree harvested, five more are planted.
Designing and building with the timber products is a “chance to show greater social responsibility and political awareness.
“Architecture is at its core a political activity. It arises from the society and community around it.
“Ignoring environmental impacts and climate change impacts is not professional.”
According to Waugh in the UK, there is “not much conversation about sustainability” in the architecture profession.
Architects become “obsessed with starchitecture” and being unique instead, he says.
“The starting point [for architecture] needs to be to do it well – not just do it differently.”
– With Tina Perinotto