Timber is the world’s oldest construction material, and has unrivalled carbon credentials. But, despite an impressive CV of global construction achievements, timber has historically had bad press. Compared to the usual concrete and/or steel, timber is still perceived as a risky option.
The UK predjudice was established by the Fire of London of 1666, and recently reconfirmed with Colindale in 2006. (Both fires started at night in vulnerable unprotected timber frames). But Swiss, Austrian and German development of laminated mass-timber construction techniques (with increasingly fine consequences) are now challenging the preconception that timber is modern architecture’s poor relation.
An abbreviated history of material technology as the main driver of architecture shows the best 17thcentury work to be characterised by stonework (e.g. Wren,Vanburgh, Hawksmoor), the 18C to be the refinement of brickwork (Georgian London & Dublin), the 19C to be the heyday of steel frame (Bessemer’s mass production, Brunel’s use of it), and the 20C as the era of concrete (Nervi, Williams, Hadid).
This leaves the 21st Century open for the successor to concrete. My prediction is timber. Not any timber; not European oak, South American iroko or North American tulipwood, but fast growing softwoods, planted for laminating into large structural profiles. Currently these woods are the managed pine forests of northern Europe and Scandinavia. But, as global carbon becomes more about legality and commodity, and timber the site of hope and cash, Russia and China will start planting mega-forests on a scale the world has never seen.
The last 10yrs of dRMM’s research and built work includes introducing cross-laminated panel construction to the UK education sector (Kingsdale School 2005), an early demonstration thatCNC cut structural timber can outsmart its competitors in versatility, site and building efficiencies, and character. And importantly, without needing to specify hardwoods, that auto-choice of architects seeking ‘permanence’ or worse, surface status, rather than sustainable structural performance.
An architect should be able to make a wonderful building out of any material. Why glued matchsticks? A ton of steel produces 1,5 tons of carbon in the making. A ton of cement 1,125 tons. And they aren’t as interesting, as versatile, as expressive. A tree produces oxygen, and absorbs 1,42 tons of carbon for every ton of timber grown. There is no downside to timber construction; only the obligation to plant three times more trees than are cut in order to mitigate climate change and have something to build with later.
Alex de Rijke, dRMM