Timber is changing the face of modern architecture and design. 

I realise this is a bold statement, and that I am open to allegations of bias given my job, but it is true. No other material is seeing such a resurgence in interest and application from designers, architects, shop-fitters, furniture & product manufacturers, contractors and others, as is currently the case for timber.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the growing range and breadth of projects we see entered into the Wood Awards each year. Over 300 projects were entered last year, showcasing an ever-expanding range of possibilities using wood, from high-rise and high-tech to hand-crafted and heritage.

Perhaps this should not be surprising. Timber has been one of the key mainstream building materials forever. But, its importance as a principal structural material in its own right – rather than playing a supporting role - has only recently begun to be fully realised.

There are a number of reasons for this. In part, we have seen the excitement caused by the use of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) and other engineered mass timber. Our industry statistics show an increase of over 100% per year in CLT use in the UK.

Contractors tend to get converted to CLT – and evangelical - quite easily due to the increased speed, quality and precision of construction which can be achieved using CLT, not to mention the inherent sustainability of the material.

The number of projects coming through using CLT is growing by the day. It shows that you can achieve project designs which never before seemed possible with timber. We have seen dozens of multi-storey residential developments developed, but have now seen Wood Awards entries for supermarkets, motorway service stations and other forms of commercial development previously reserved for steel and concrete.

This is an incredible development. It shows the desire on the part of designers and developers not just for improved speed and practical delivery, but in many cases to also demonstrate their own corporate sustainability credentials. Timber helps give expression to these ambitions and creates the perfect aesthetic environment to communicate these values.

Mellor Primary School, photo courtesy of Wood Awards 2016

A great example is also one of my favourite projects from last year’s entries, the Mellor Primary School, by Sarah Wrigglesworth architects. With a front designed to emulate the look of a wild bee or insect house, the school wears its environmental ambitions boldly on its sleeve, while creating an innovative learning environment in its own right.

The Smile, photo courtesy of of AHEC & ARUP. All credits to Jon Cardwell

The increased timber interest has also encouraged designers to push the boundaries of what is possible, from an engineering point of view, with timber. A perfect example of this was a project called “The Smile”, a collaboration between Alison Brooks Architects, ARUP, the London Design Festival, and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC).

This spectacular curved, tubular timber structure measuring 3.5m high, 4.5m wide and 34metres long was designed to be inhabited and explored by the public and was the first ever “mega-tube” made with CLT panels from American tulipwood – as opposed to European spruce which dominates the CLT market.

Using an alternative species like this is a great example of the innovation that the Wood Awards inspires in designers, and which deserves recognition. From a sustainability point of view, it is a double win. Tulipwood is a highly abundant species, naturally representing a large proportion of hardwood forests, so the project utilises a readily available resource. Secondly, CLT uses the lowest grades of timber – those that are no longer exported for furniture production and would otherwise have a very restricted market – and creates a very high value, high-grade product from them.

This and other projects have led to increased interest from other architects and designers in the use of hardwood for structural projects.

Contour House, photo courtesy of Wood Awards 2016

In many ways, though, the rise of CLT has mirrored the more use of penalised timber frame construction for lower-rise developments and residential housing. Again, this section of the market is growing enormously with huge investment pouring into the manufacturing base. Naturally, from a Timber Trade Federation point of view, we are delighted with this. Our main lobbying push is to try and develop a far wider base of timber manufacturing across the UK.

Woodpeckers, photo courtesy of Wood Awards 2016

Again, through the Wood Awards, we see innovations coming through using timber-frame construction in a variety of ways, particularly in the private house category. The 2016 winner Contour House is a great example, along with entries such as Woodpeckers and Ansty Plum.

Ansty Plum,  photo courtesy of Wood Awards 2016

It is not just sustainability that gives timber a leading edge over other materials, but also the sense of creating an environment of ‘well-being’ for building inhabitants. Nowhere can this be seen more than in Maggie’s at the Robert Parfett Building, Winner of the Arnold Laver Gold Award in 2016 

Maggie’s at the Robert Parfett Building, photo courtesy of Wood Awards 2016

This building is a new addition to the list of Maggie’s centres which use carefully considered architecture to create a place of refuge where people affected by cancer can find emotional and practical support.

The Manchester centre has created a domestic atmosphere in a garden setting while accommodating a range of flexible spaces from intimate private niches to a library, exercise rooms and places where people can gather and share a cup of tea.

These examples, along with the huge range of conservation & repair projects, and the furniture and interior installation work which is also entered, allow for the UK’s largest showcase of timber design.

It is a living library of how timber is changing the face of modern design, from the buildings on the high street to the furniture and products sold within them. This is truly the age of timber.

For more information on The Wood Awards please visit: www.woodawards.com

Entries for 2017 are now open. 

David Hopkins, Managing Director, Timber Trade Federation. 

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