Volume 23, No.07 - July 2015

 Out with the old


 For readers of a certain generation, the very suggestion of a wooden interior is likely to conjure up images of stripped pine furniture and sanded floors, but the world of wood has moved on considerably since the heady days of the 70s when the BBC comedy series ‘The Good Life’ celebrated a simpler approach to domestic existence and when DIY (whether implemented well or badly) was all the rage. Imperceptibly, wood has in fact gone upmarket over the past 40 or so years, to the extent that it now permeates not only our domestic internal environments, but also those of our commercial, cultural and educational facilities. 


So what are the altered circumstances that have made wood popular again and indeed to see it now regarded as a high quality, high value contributor to the modern interior? Sure, the material’s tactility and feeling of warmth are still important characteristics, but it is not the heavily grained, knotted and varnished boards so prevalent in the 70s that appeal today: it is the durability and stability of highly engineered wood-based components as well as other properties that have transformed perceptions. Take the world of flooring alone: there are now literally hundreds of composite, laminated or modified wood systems on the market with a price spectrum that ranges from the relatively inexpensive to more eye-watering levels on a par with materials generally considered to be in the luxury cost bracket. Whilst internationally the domestic market for wood flooring is enormous, it is in the interior areas of larger public buildings that wood has made a new and highly visible impression and stimulated new design approaches. 

The irregular wooden surfaces to the foyer of Oslo’s Opera House provide visibly rich texture and invisible sound dampening.


As with so many things today, the re-emergence of wood as a construction and finishing material has much to do with its environmental qualities and at risk of being seen to bang the same old drum, there is no getting away from the fact that it is the one genuinely renewable building material we have and with carbon sequestration credentials that heavily advantage it over competing construction materials and products. This is not to suggest an either/or choice since, used well, wood is well able to harmoniously complement concrete, masonry and steel components and finishes. And, in engineered form, it no longer has technical disadvantages such as dimensional instability. In addition, it offers distinct benefits, particularly in areas such as noise control and the acoustic design of auditoria. 
Take Oslo Opera House, for example, arguably one of the most beautiful modern buildings constructed anywhere in the world in recent years. Rising out of the water on the city’s harbour front, its fully accessible exterior is clad in white Carrara marble, giving the building a glacier-like appearance that is made more so by the groups of people who seem happy to wander over its roof at any time, day or night. Its cavernous lobby space is equally dramatic – a potential acoustic nightmare with its concrete structural columns and hard floor and wall surfaces. The space is relieved, however, not only sound-wise when crowds are milling around in the intervals, but also in terms of texture and colour, by the astonishing use of wood cladding to the balustrades of the ramps that curve around the outer wall of the auditorium itself. This is intelligent design and intelligent use of wood, with the irregular surface created by the employment of short lengths of material softening both sound and light and providing a rich glow to the space that might otherwise be absent. 
A more unusual example is to be found in the Richmond Oval, an ice skating arena built in 2010 for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The Mayor of Richmond (a satellite city to Vancouver) called for the building to be an expression of local materials, a desire that engineers Paul Fast and Gerry Epp (Fast + Epp) took literally and to giant scale. In designing huge structural beams able to span the 90 metre width of the skating space without intermediate column support, the engineers decided to eschew conventional steel and concrete solutions and to fabricate giant glued laminated (glulam) timber beams instead. These are configured in pairs to form curving V-shaped composite beams that not only impressively span the vast breadth of the arena, but also contain all of the building’s mechanical and electrical services (lighting, heating and ventilation, sprinkler system) within the hollow of the V. 
Remarkable though this integrated solution is, it is the smaller, 13 metre ‘wood waves’ that span perpendicular to the main beams that most expressively demonstrate the benefits of the wood in the particular circumstances of this building type. Comprising standard sawmill sections, the short lengths of softwood are formed into irregular curved V-shaped beams and spaced to allow air penetration to the sound absorbent material that lines the inner faces of the V. These intermediate beams provide the acoustic dampening so often omitted from these large, reverberant volumes, but also a perception of warmth that is not normally something one associates with ice skating venues. 
The big win is that it makes use of some 6000 beetle affected trees, an endemic problem in pine trees in parts of British Columbia and which is too often resolved by simply burning the infected material. Here Fast+Epp have demonstrated that the wood’s structural capacity (and hence its economic value) remains unaffected by disease, and have used this to advantage in their ingenious solution to an engineering challenge. That this has also benefited the local forestry sector is a message for architects, engineers and foresters in the UK where our larch, oak and Scots pine trees are also variously affected by disease. Edinburgh Napier University’s Centre for Wood Science and Technology has now carried out considerable research and testing to show that it is still possible to make intelligent - indeed innovative - use of these species by, for example, fabricating large structures entirely from relatively short lengths of material. 
Two relatively young, talented architectural practices located at either end of the Isle - Dualchas and Rural Design - have been the pathfinders in this with their respective approaches to low energy design garnering many architectural awards. Designed initially as a holiday home, Fiskavaig (by Rural Design is a small trapezoidal house sitting lightly on agricultural piles and appearing, to all intents and purposes, to be just another of Skye’s new generation of wood-clad houses. Yet go inside to find this modest home makes the most of its low budget materials, with oriented strand board (OSB) used as the wall and ceiling linings throughout. An industrial finish, yes, but the overall feeling is one of warmth and simplicity – and an absolute snip at less than £60000 at the time it was built. 
At the very north west of Skye sits Borreraig, a bespoke and exquisitely detailed larch clad house by Dualchas. With stunning views across to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, this is very evidently at the top end of the price range, but it is the standard of its interior finishes that takes one’s breath away. Lined throughout with plywood, the house exudes a quality that belies normal perceptions of what is generally considered to be a standard construction product. In this instance, however, the plywood has an outer lamella of oak and this, matched by extremely precise joinery, provides a warm, comfortable and elegant interior that requires little maintenance by its owner. 
These five examples merely indicate a small part of the immense range of design opportunities presented by modern timber products. Contemporary technology is very much part of this renaissance – CNC machines and parametric computer modelling are but two areas in which technical advances have transformed designers’ views on the potential to use wood throughout our new buildings. This humble material has most certainly come of age.