Fran Williams from Architects Journal speaks to Waugh Thistleton associate Alastair Ogle to find out what it’s all about
How did Timber Typologies come about?
In discussion with Timber Development UK (TDUK), we found we were both noticing that people were getting confused and referring simply to ‘timber buildings’, which was leading to miscommunication and misunderstandings. For example, when someone talks about an eight-storey timber office building and then about a two-storey timber house, people often would have the same construction system in mind and believe this would be used to deliver both buildings. In reality, the timber products used to deliver an eight-storey timber building differ greatly from those used for a two-storey timber house. We felt a short, easily accessible overview was necessary to clarify misconceptions such as these.
What does the guide consist of?
It introduces the benefits of timber and the different types of timber components. It explains why stud and plywood systems are typically used for lightweight timber frame construction and the specific properties of mass timber elements: glulam, laminated veneer lumber (LVL), and cross-laminated timber (CLT). It explains why lightweight timber frames are typically used to deliver lower to mid-rise construction and when you might employ a panelised CLT or a post-and-beam mass timber system.
Who is the target audience for the guide?
Anybody in the construction industry discussing how to achieve lower-carbon construction and exploring how they might use timber. So, if that is you, or you are speaking to an MP, building control, a warranty provider, a developer or an insurer, you can explain why the building will be constructed out of this or that typology. It’s a free download that everyone can refer to and discuss.
How is having a selection of build options and methodologies in a guide useful for low-carbon timber construction?
Providing these typologies and typical use cases demonstrates how timber can be used for most UK construction. When timber is not considered, higher-carbon and non-renewable materials such as steel and concrete are used instead, which can significantly increase the embodied carbon of a project – by up to 75 per cent.
How do you think this guide will influence the industry?
We hope it will give people more confidence to design and deliver buildings in timber. We know that over 90 per cent of concrete used in the construction industry could easily be replaced with timber, so we hope this will push that agenda.
Generally speaking, how much timber do we use in UK construction compared with other countries? And what is timber’s potential in this regard?
Currently, across the whole of the UK, we only construct 25 per cent of our housing with timber frames (however, it’s 75 per cent in Scotland) and, since Grenfell, which was not timber, currently none of our mid-rise housing is built in timber. Given that we pioneered the use of mass timber in mid-rise development in the UK, it is a travesty that we are no longer the world leaders in using it.
As for the potential of timber, we should aim to match Scotland in our delivery of housing across the UK and look at ways to rebuild market confidence in delivering mid-rise timber buildings.
While there will always be projects for which timber is not the most suitable or efficient – infrastructure projects, for example (we’re not going to be building motorways and tunnels in timber anytime soon) – timber can be used for the vast majority of construction. We look forward to a future where the best material is used for the most appropriate use. We think timber can satisfy most of that – complemented with steel and concrete where appropriate.
What do you hope will come out of the guide’s launch with respect to the regulations, policy and insurance?
We hope it will mean people stop categorising projects simply as ‘timber buildings’ and that the discussion (particularly with respect to insurance) will move forward from ‘it’s a timber-framed building, and it’s a certain height’ to ‘it’s a panelled, or it’s a post-and-beam structure, and it’s using these types of timber elements designed to meet a specific level of performance. Improving the baseline knowledge will improve discussion and help people gain relevant approvals and obtain insurance for their timber buildings.
How much headway has been made in convincing the industry and its insurers that timber can be used safely?
A lot. There’s more than enough fire evidence and guidance for the majority of buildings, and there are competent fire engineers who can advise on the design of more complex buildings. This guide is aiding that discussion and is developing confidence with insurers. I feel we’ve made massive strides in the past few years, and I hope the last few steps are soon to be taken. However, we’re a long way from timber becoming the go-to method of construction, which is where it should be.
What are your next steps? Other guides are planned. What will they focus on?
Two further guides are coming. Timber Typologies is part one. Part two will be on policy, providing an overview of what timber-based policies, guidance, and initiatives are being implemented worldwide. Currently, the UK has fallen behind in adopting timber as a construction material. We used to be the global leader but post-Grenfell, fire concerns and misconceptions about the material have led us to essentially backward steps. What we hope this guide will do is set a framework showing what the rest of the world is doing so that the UK can look to adopt some of these policies.
The third guide is on life cycle assessments and demonstrates how different timber typologies compare with traditional construction methods.
Waugh Thistleton Architects is a leader in using timber. Do you use build typologies or methodologies when designing in your practice?
Our work designing timber buildings has evolved as our experience has increased. For at least the past ten years, every project we work on has started off as a timber building, and we work with our clients to demonstrate why timber makes sense.
We use a framework for assessing which typologies are right for each building and use the typologies as a starting point. Sometimes timber doesn’t win out as the appropriate solution at the time, but I think having the mentality of always starting with timber has led us to have an in-depth understanding of the industry, what products are out there and the current market perception.
Timber Typologies is free to download at timberdevelopment.uk/resources/timber-typologies