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What does the future hold for commercial timber buildings?

What does the future hold for commercial timber buildings?

More than ever, commercial building projects are utilising the natural resource of timber. For a long time, steel and concrete have been the default structural material for many commercial projects, particularly tall buildings; however recent years have seen technological advances that have allowed for an increase use of timber in the commercial sector.

Though there have been many reasons to be cautious of this natural material – common preconceptions are threat of fire and not being as structurally sound as steel and concrete – the capabilities of engineered timber and beam-and-post structural frames are remarkable, and have signalled a new era for commercial builds.

And so, we ask, what does the future hold for commercial timber buildings? Is the use of this material a sustainable and resilient approach?

Victoria Whenray, Partner, Conran and Partners

Victoria is partner at Conran and Partners where she brings a layered approach to design and takes a leading role in the architectural design direction of the practice across its London and Hong Kong studios. Victoria brings a wealth of experience leading on a number of creative mixed-use regeneration and master-planning projects. She joined the board of Conran and Partners in 2016.

Conran and Partners- Victoria Whenray
Conran and Partners- Victoria Whenray

Timber has been a tried and trusted versatile structural building material over many centuries. As a highly valued local resource, it was not only practical, but also aesthetically beautiful.

In recent history of course, wood has been usurped by materials such as concrete and steel, particularly in the western world.

Long recognised as a sustainable resource, timber is having a resurgence within the design and building industry and once again being recognised for it’s inherent qualities, including impressively low heat conductivity, low bulk to strength ratio, and of course excellent credentials as a renewable resource, with an extremely low embodied carbon footprint. The beautiful, natural nature of the material, encourages it to be expressed within the design process, which in turn is creating a new aesthetic sensibility within architecture.

And of course, through the growing appetite for sustainable building techniques, matched with a greater understanding of performance, the use of timber as a major building material is being widely explored in increasingly larger, non-residential buildings.

Conran and Partners recently undertook a design for the National Design Museum in South Korea.

Conran- National Design Museum
Conran- National Design Museum

Our design was inspired by the highly crafted Korean temples, which were traditionally raised and built off a bedrock, with timber pillars, roof, walls and doors – all from locally sourced red pine –assembled with enormous care and skill by the best artists of the day.

With an interest in testing the route to a carbon neutral building, this historic building typology informed our first principles – timber as the structural, façade and roofing material on a base of granite.

In collaboration with our friends at Arup, a series of 3 buildings – or pavilions – were designed to be assembled mechanically with a repeated construction methodology, using components fabricated off site. This created a flexibility for extensions to the buildings, and importantly an allowance for dismantling and re-use. For timber buildings, disassembly, adaptation and reuse is the ideal disposal option at end-of-life.

It’s worth noting at this point that in very isolated cases we investigated the use of steel to minimise structural profile. In each case the high strength to weight ratio offered by the proposed glu-lam timber columns and beams outperformed the steel. Further to this, the relatively light weight assists transport and handling.

A primary goal was for a completely ‘dry’ construction process and we discovered a joy in developing an aesthetic language for the joints and connections, that would add to the personality of the load bearing columns, and which became an inherent element of the architectural language. From experience we also knew that the timber touch points such as the floors and balustrades would all stand the test of time -natural ageing with the associated bumps and dinks, will only enrich the material quality and add a unique patina.

Calculations projected that the scheme would deliver a carbon negative result. The structural grid was of scale to allow for large spans and flexibility within this, to make it suitable for exhibition, research and office space. And the natural and crafted aesthetic of the material contributed to a beautiful project embedded in history and context. A true symbiosis of poetry and pragmatism.


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