Innovation in timber

In recent years, timber has attracted widespread attention from across the built environment. Structural timber, in particular, has become a common choice for both in-situ construction and off-site construction solutions, writes Martin Hurn, Managing Director of Futurebuild Events – owner of ecobuild.

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Martin Hurn has 12 years’ experience in the building and construction industry, and has overseen ecobuild for five years. Following the 2017 event, Martin set up Futurebuild Events and made the acquisition of ecobuild. His vision for ecobuild is to give it back to the industry, shine a spotlight on true innovation and facilitate much-needed debate around fundamental industry issues.

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n fact, the Structural Timber Association (STA) has found that 74% of the UK’s contractors, developers, architects and registered providers plan to increase specifications of structural timber homes and other buildings.

Interest in timber technology

There are some clear reasons behind the growing interest in timber. As a robust yet lightweight solution, the use of structural timber reduces the loading on foundations and delivers multiple benefits including speed of build and enhanced quality, together with improved thermal, acoustic and performance benefits plus a myriad of positive sustainability impacts.

Of the three structural timber technology types (traditional timber frame, structural insulated panel and cross-laminated timber (CLT)) – the latter often referred to as ‘solid wood’ – is where most innovation is currently happening within construction. CLT is a structural two-way spanning timber laminated panel that can be used to form walls, roof and floor panels as well as shear walls.

The technology behind CLT has shown to support the completion of energy-efficient buildings on time and budget. It is now extensively used across the commercial, leisure and education construction sectors and the benefits have been widely acknowledged. For example, BSkyB recently built four buildings using solid wood technology as part of its London campus. Its training centre, also known as the Believe in Better Building, is the tallest commercial timber structure in the UK. It was designed and constructed in less than one year.

The three main areas of innovation

Innovation in CLT is largely centred around three key areas:

1. Technology transfer
The technology transfer of CLT from other parts of the world, such as Western Europe, has had a significant influence on the use of timber in construction in the UK. British architects and engineers have been instrumental in adapting this technology for the demands of the built environment sector at home. Currently, London has three of the top-10 CLT structures in the world.

2. The invention and evolution of modified wood
Modified wood is low-grade timber that has been chemically enhanced to deliver optimum performance. Instead of using prime, high-value timber, which actually grows very slowly, manufacturers have been treating lower-grade raw material for it to be used in premium application. This not only helps improve the durability of the product in construction, but also helps sustain forests a lot longer as the slow-growing, higher quality timber can be left to reach its maximum potential before being used.

3. Establishing a controlled Chain of Custody process
Chain of Custody certification is a process that ensures that the timber obtained and used by built environment professionals is from certified forests. The Chain of Custody methods we have today, such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), did not exist 10 years ago. People now think more about where materials are coming from and companies are fully capable of giving preference to suppliers who adhere to Chain of Custody certification requirements. While this isn’t a technological or product innovation, the focus on the sustainable sourcing of timber is a huge evolution for the sector.

Growing demand

While innovation in the sector is rife, demand for ever more sophisticated solutions is continuously growing.

A prime example of this is the Dalston Lane project. Located in the London Borough of Hackney, Dalston Lane is thought to be the tallest residential CLT structure in the world, with the largest panels measuring 12m long by 2.8m high. In line with Hackney’s ‘timber-first’ approach, the landmark development is made completely from CLT, from the external walls to the floors and stairs.

The sustainability credentials of the project are remarkable. The carbon removed from the atmosphere in the building of Dalston Lane, using CLT as the core structural solution, is equivalent to the emissions produced by 1703 cars over a year. If every one of the 121 households in the development were to buy a car; they could run it for 14 years without producing a carbon footprint.

The project has been shortlisted as a finalist in the Private Housing Project category at the Structural Timber Awards.

Focus on timber at ecobuild 2018

Projects like Dalston Lane demonstrate the potential of timber as a sustainable, innovative building material.

And this is exactly the kind of innovation we want to bring to built environment professionals at ecobuild 2018.

Research from last year’s event showed that timber was one of the building materials that visitors were most interested in. A total of 6845 visitors said that they wanted to see a greater focus on timber as a building material, while 4147 were specifically interested in innovations in structural timber.

As such, ecobuild 2018 will feature an area specifically dedicated to timber. This ‘Timber District’ will help to drive the discussion around the material and its use in off-site construction, and will showcase the latest innovations in timber use, including timber frame, solid wood and Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) technology – providing valuable opportunities for anyone involved in the timber industry to highlight their work.

The area will be supported by the Structural Timber Association, Wood for Good, Timber Trade Federation, British Woodworking Federation and the Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA).

These partners will help to curate a new seminar programme within the Timber District, including a series of three ‘timber talks’ focused on key topics affecting the industry. Across the three-day event, visitors will also be able to explore the TRADA bookshop, where members of the TRADA team discuss its latest publications, and a new timber pavilion called the Launch Pad, where SMEs and start-up companies can get support with their new product launches.

Visitors will also have access to a dedicated three-day Offsite Buyer and Specifier Forum, which has been designed to bring together 100 off-site and timber buyers at ecobuild.

Timber innovation is continually evolving and we, at ecobuild, are keen on ensuring that the built environment is unlocking its potential in all the right ways.

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