London's tall timber building - just the beginning for the UK?
London is now home to the world’s tallest modern timber residential building –
the nine-storey Murray Grove apartment complex in Hackney.
So where is the UK at in the use of timber as the main structural building material? We asked Richard Harris, Professor of Timber Engineering at The University of Bath. With research interests including structural applications of timber and tall timber buildings, and as a structural engineering designer, he’s also been behind the design of some award-winning timber projects including the reconstruction of London’s Globe Theatre, and the striking Savill Building Gridshell Roof in Surrey.
The tall timber building in London has clearly made an impression in the UK, Richard says.
“It’s shown that timber is not a marginal material. The local authority quite openly say they like the building, and they’re getting great feedback from the people living in it. Some of the people promoting timber most effectively there are not actually people in the timber business, but the contractors who have been using it. They’re finding it very quick, and the level of pre-fabrication is making life easier for them.”
He says, like elsewhere around the world, the main issue in construction in the UK is the recession.
“However, we are so desperately short of housing, so that’s probably the big opportunity for timber. It’s still a small part of overall construction, so when we do come out of the recession, and see more construction, the four, five, six-storey buildings ought to be a good area for timber to aim at.”
So, how big is the green factor in steering the use of timber in the UK?
“In London, when planning permission was given for the first of the tall towers, the carbon store was one of the reasons for promoting it. But I think other factors are driving timber, like the Schools Programme - an initiative to rebuild a lot of the old schools. Cross-laminated timber was used very widely, because contractors found it quick, profitable because they were onsite for a shorter period of time, with very few problems to go back and fix compared with in-situ construction.
“School buildings are still a really successful area for timber construction. In schools, construction is very disruptive. If you’re building a new sports hall and you want to get it up in the summer holidays, then speed is very important."
And what are the barriers to the growth in timber usage in the UK?
“The steel and concrete industries are very effective marketers for their products, and timber is very fragmented. There has been a recent collaboration agreement signed by the eleven timber trade bodies in the UK, pledging to work together to promote wood. It will be very interesting to see if that will give the marketing of timber a better chance,” Richard says.
He says more than anything, he’d like to see closer work between industry and research in the UK.
“I recently visited Canada, and it was striking to see how strongly Government promotes industry becoming closely involved with research. I see STIC as a really good academic and industry initiative, but I don’t think there’s that appreciation in the UK. There’s almost a fear of one another - that industry seems to think that research is too complicated for them to understand, and research think that industry is too commercial for them to get involved with. There needs to be more opportunities for them to work with, and understand each other and for industry to guide researchers with direction.”
Richard believes more prefabrication is an obvious area of expansion for the United Kingdom’s building industry.
“I think we’ll see more and more prefabrication, and more highly finished elements of buildings. Because current regulations in the UK are very strict on air tightness, insulation and acoustic separation, it makes sense to get all those things right in the factory, and get a building up quickly and sealing it up before it gets wet. Industry is clearly capable of high levels of prefabrication, in all sorts of ways, so I think that we must see more finishing of the building in the factory.”
We caught up with Richard at the recent WCTE in Auckland.
More prefabrication is an obvious area of expansion for the United Kingdom’s building industry.