Volume 23, No.04 - April 2015

Building a new timber environment


In many ways the Great Fire of London in 1666 established the decidedly negative perceptions of wood as a construction material in our towns and cities that, for many people, have carried on to this day.


Indeed, the London Building Acts were substantially predicated on the need to prevent future conflagration in timber structures, principally by preferencing the use of other, more fire resistant, materials altogether. But whilst legislation pertaining to the use of wood in the world’s denser built environments has often mitigated against its use as a primary structural component, regulations around the world are gradually changing in response to research and greater understanding of fire and reliable methods for its prevention. These developments, together with advances in the manufacture of timber-based building components and in the technology of timber construction, have moved matters on considerably in the almost 350 years since a large part of England’s capital was accidentally razed to the ground.
More recently, a combination of factors has generated a strong resurgence of interest in the use of timber in construction: certainly, environmental and sustainability concerns about material sourcing and use have been focal to this, but an exponential rise in demand for new housing has advanced the quest for more effective methods of off-site, mass manufacture approaches. Responses to continually rising requirements for thermal efficiency and airtightness are deliverable by these means with more speed and precision than is possible with traditional, on-site masonry construction.
The use of off-site manufacture is more prevalent in areas such as Scotland where platform timber frame construction has been the predominant system of choice for over 40 years, so much so that more than 70% of housing north of the border is constructed in this way. A great deal of technological development and hands-on experience has been gained along the way, with housing and other developments in Scotland’s cities regularly reaching up to seven storeys in height. Manufactured offsite in controlled factory conditions, framed and closed panel systems can be easily delivered into urban areas and assembled far more quickly than is possible with traditional wet trade construction, a method that is also contingent upon the existence of reasonably good weather conditions if timescale targets are to be met. In many ways, the timber frame industry north of the border can be regarded as first class, with a number of very advanced factories able to prefabricate a large variety - and volume - of building solutions.
The same has not been the case in England where, until relatively recently, platform timber frame assembly had been largely avoided, a lasting consequence of a World in Action programme from the early 1980s about one volume housebuilder’s then standards of timber construction. Even today the percentage of house completions in England using this method is relatively low (15-20%). True, a number of high profile fires in timber frame buildings on urban sites that were still under construction and inadequately protected have hardly advanced the case for timber frame in a property sector still wedded to brick and block construction, but sheer demand for the speedy erection of humongous numbers of new homes built to low carbon standards is inevitably impacting on this. Prediction, therefore: we are likely to witness far more housebuilders in England using this method and taking it to new heights and urban densities in the foreseeable future.
These developments, coupled with new and very different approaches to energy reduction that enable new buildings to become net generators rather than consumers of power, are likely to introduce some positive transformation in the global built environment. Current projections indicate that 80% of the world's population of eight billion will live in urban situations by 2050. This, together with international concerns over rapidly accelerating climate change & the scale & nature of extraction processes involved in conversion of the raw materials required for the construction of new urban conglomerations demands a paradigm shift in the way we conceive & construct new buildings & cities. Attention is now being directed towards far more extensive use of renewable materials, reused &/or remanufactured products & innovative approaches to energy supply & use, the aim no longer being simply to move towards the creation of low or zero carbon buildings & infrastructure, but to heighten ambitions towards the regular delivery of negative carbon (autarkic) environments in which the daily use of workspaces & homes is able to generate the heat & electrical energy required to meet our needs & to store or sell any excess thus produced. 
In response to these environmental challenges, recent developments in engineered timber products and in timber engineering have resulted in a new generation of individual vertical wood-based building structures emerging around the globe in the past few years and which  offer considerable potential for up-scaling to form larger urban conglomerations. This process began with the Stadthaus (2009) in East London’s Murray Grove, an eight storey apartment building of solid wood construction sitting above a masonry ground floor & concrete foundations, Since then, ever taller timber structures have been built in various countries, e.g. the Forte Building (Melbourne, 10 storeys), the Wood Innovation & Design Centre (Prince George B.C, 9 storeys), with others under construction (Bergen, 14 storeys) & even taller projects in advanced planning (Västerbro, Stockholm - 34 storeys, completion due 2023). Other studies have shown the potential to construct 20+ storey commercial buildings from timber as well as 46 storey equivalents to traditional steel frame construction. 
​But it is not only individual or tall buildings that are the subject of these technological advances. In Oslo and its surrounding municipalities, a 10-year programme entitled FutureBuilt began in 2010 with a vision to create carbon-neutral areas combined with high quality architecture. These developments are taking place within a very specific context: the Oslo region is anticipated to expand in population by almost 50% by 2050 and the planning of new infrastructure, housing and other facilities capable of meeting this demand has already begun.
The aim of the programme is to complete 50 pilot projects – urban areas as well as individual buildings – with the lowest possible green house gas emissions from transport, energy and material consumption. The concept is predicated upon an acceptance that man-made climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face today and that consequently, emissions of climate-affecting gases need to be reduced dramatically. Achieving this will undoubtedly have a significant impact upon the nature of urban development and architecture and, with its programme now halfway to completion, the FutureBuilt initiative already has some 26 projects completed, of which 17 new buildings, six renovation projects and three area developments provide outstanding exemplars from which other cities can learn and benefit. 
One of these new projects is Tallhall, the Meteorological Institute which, as a supplier of climate research data, was an obvious candidate for demonstrating how emission reduction might be achieved. Constructed above ground from untreated cross laminated timber plates clad externally with perforated recycled aluminium, the renewable “short travelled” wood sequesters considerably more atmospheric carbon dioxide than equivalent volumes of steel or concrete (1 cubic meter of wood -+ 1 tonne of carbon). These open public areas of the building sit over a concrete basement made using a newly developed “low carbon” formula and filled with massed ranks of weather forecasting computer servers. The energy concept is based upon reuse of left over heat from these machines. The servers are cooled directly within the actual racks, facilitating water-cooling at temperature levels suitable for reuse in low temperature heating systems. The water also travels through the project’s outside paving, allowing the servers to cool at the same time as the paving heats up, for free, thus melting the snow from the entrance during winter. Conceptually simple, perhaps, but an approach that - applied more widely - would see each new building erected in our towns and cities as a positive contributor to a more habitable built environment. 
So, to return to the Great Fire for a moment: it is possible nowadays do a great deal more with wood – the one genuinely renewable construction material available to us – than just burning it. In its new technologically developed forms it offers a wholly modern and environmentally responsible way to build, compatible with new approaches to energy generation that dispense with the need for wood as a heat source. Burning wood is absolutely the last thing we should think of doing with this amazing material.