University Challenge 2019

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Students design “healthy” student multi-storey accommodation from timber


In a world where failing buildings and performance gaps are the norm, where professions are adversarial, and value engineering, cheap product substitution and below par building practices are expected – should we encourage our next generation of professionals to use timber in buildings?


TRADA and its members say yes – but right product, right place. Sympathetic design, good engineering and knowledgeable construction teams are required. With timber not specifically taught to any of the professions at university, TRADA is taking the lead. It is engaging with universities and working with its professional and supplier members to run a competition that encourages holistic team working and a knowledgeable understanding of using timber and timber products when designing, specifying and costing buildings.



The multidisciplinary team of six that aced this year's TRADA University Challenge ignored the convention of the red line boundary and changed the arrangement of buildings around the site. Their innovative approach led to a design that combined post and beam with a modular volumetric structure. Slotted and stacked into four frames of differing heights, which maximised sunlight, the ‘CLT room pods insulated with wood-fibre’ are accessed through the communal central areas, adding to student community engagement. Each studio room included a shower room and a study area with external windowed views. Communal areas at both roof and ground level encourage further interaction. Total costs were estimated at £33 million with an 18-month program.


The TRADA University Challenge is a high-pressure charrette-styled competition which invites architects, architectural technologists, engineers, landscape architects and quantity surveying undergraduates from UK universities to participate. In 2019 the brief was to design “healthy” student accommodation predominantly from timber. The intense two-day challenge took place 8–9 February at the University of Sheffield’s Diamond building. Sixty students from 25 Universities split into ten teams of six, competing to see who could design, cost and engineer accommodation that used timber and timber products to emphasise health and well-being, energy efficiency, and building to budget. An existing site in the heart of Sheffield’s shopping district grounded and gave real life constraints to the project brief.


Team 9 scooped the top prize of £1200, closely followed by Team 3 in second place and Teams 4 and 7 in third and fourth. Quantity Surveyor student Andy Freeman (Team 6) from Sheffield Hallam University was Highly Commended for impressing Olly Booth and the judging panel with his knowledge, enthusiasm and application.


Winners: Team 9


Arnas Mikalauskas, University of Sheffield

Aleksandra Ziembinska, University of Strathclyde


Architect / Interior Architect:

Isaac Palmiere-Szabo, Leicester School of Architecture, De Montfort University

Louisa Keighley, University of Derby


Landscape Architect:

Emma Beaumont, University of Sheffield


Quantity Surveyor:

Cameron Timms, Coventry University



Louisa Keighley, University of Derby, commented: ‘[Working with engineers] was very new and really enlightening. It was quite daunting to discover how much information they needed. I’ve never worked with a QS to that level before either and it was really interesting to see how they worked. I think the knowledge gained in the TRADA University Challenge will be invaluable when I go out into the workplace. I’ll know what is required of me and what information the other disciplines will need from me’.


Isaac Palmiere-Szabo, Leicester School of Architecture, DMU, commented: ‘I was pushing to design something a bit more experimental and different to standard student typology, which I know can be easy to get wrong – surprisingly, we were the only team to disrupt the original footprint of the site. We had a really strong team and worked really well together; although at first there was a communication barrier between the different disciplines, after an hour we were all on the same page’.


Tabitha Binding, TRADA’s University Engagement Manager, shared: ‘I am absolutely delighted with all the students who participated in this year’s University Challenge. The degree of imagination that went into each teams’ designs was amazing. The knowledge gained of how and where to use timber and timber products is both practical and useful as students head out into the professional world. The multidisciplinary aspect has given them an understanding of how working holistically is so beneficial to designing, engineering and constructing quality buildings.


'Congratulations to Team 9 for their deserving win, but congratulations also to all sixty students who took part. I would like to thank the University of Sheffield, and our excellent team of hands-on sponsors, judges and ambassadors who worked tirelessly engaging, enthusing and educating. Thank you also to Wood for Good, who provided participants with The Modern Timber House in the UK'.


The competition kicked off early Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon, during which time students collaborated in designated design teams. Each team included two architects or architectural technologists, two engineers, a landscape architect and a quantity surveyor, none of whom had met before – creating situations and relationships comparable to real world project teams. This aspect is painful and opens up clear divides, with each discipline fighting for prominence, before boundary lines are broken and ideas coalesce into one design. Knowing then what they need to bring to the project, the team members work together, enjoying the constraints and interaction that team working brings.

Throughout the two days teams had open access to the judging panel of pioneering design professionals and knowledgeable industry sponsors, and the University of Sheffield’s exceptional facilities.


When 29 hours were up, #tomorrowstimbertalent teams had 8 minutes to present their designs concisely and elegantly to the expert panel of judges, who were unanimous in naming Team 9 the winners, citing their innovative approach and attention to future adaptability.


Universities involved in the competition included: the Universities of Bath, Bristol, Derby, Dundee, East London, Liverpool, Reading, Sheffield, South Wales, Strathclyde, Wales, Trinity St David, West of England Bristol and Hertfordshire; Cardiff, Coventry, Edinburgh Napier, Leeds Beckett, Newcastle, Nottingham Trent, Salford and Sheffield Hallam Universities; and Arts University Bournemouth, Leicester School of Architecture DMU, Norwich University of the Arts, and the University for the Creative Arts Canterbury.


Materials need to be taught and understood at university level. Hands-on design and make projects also need to be increased with the professional disciplines working together. The building fabric, material interfaces, construction sequencing and detailing require consideration as materials are selected for both current and ‘modern methods of construction’. Without this essential knowledge, how can we price, design, engineer and construct healthy, energy efficient, quality, long lived buildings?


Building on the success of the TRADA University Challenge and working with universities and members, these are the next issues to be tackled. If you would like to get involved, please contact Tabitha Binding, TRADA’s University Engagement Manager, on


2nd place: Team 3

Eleanor Harris, Coventry University
Stephen Johnson, Norwich University of the Arts
Jack Schroeder, University of Liverpool
Mateusz Szulca, Newcastle University
Wingsze Yuen, University of Sheffield
Isla Thomas, University of South Wales


3rd place: Team 4

Aston Oakes, University of Reading
Freddie Solman, Sheffield Hallam University
Joanna Kaye, University of Sheffield
Dachi Khutsishvili, Edinburgh Napier University
Fergus Paske, University of Sheffield
Carys Ann Richards, University of South Wales


4th place: Team 7

Elliott Wang, Cardiff University WSA
Adam Moss, University of Derby
Alexander William Mead, University of Bath
Naveera Fasahat, Salford University
Russell Giblett, University of Sheffield
Charlotte Orr, Coventry University


Judges’ comments


‘I had input into the brief to create a very challenging competition and the students had a lot to do. They’re not used to collaborating, but it’s exactly what happens in the real world. The competition has helped them begin to understand all the cogs in the machine. It’s about the whole picture – a student hub, linking the city to the community – innovating with timber.’ Alex Abbey, Cullinan Studio



Many thanks to major sponsors Timber Trade Federation and STEICO, sponsor Stora Enso, and supporters Wood for Good and PEFC UK, whose support of the TRADA University Challenge 2019 made it possible. 


‘STEICO became a major sponsor because, from our perspective, we want to formalise the relationship between architects, engineers and product manufacturers, getting them interacting earlier in the design and specification process. The TRADA University Challenge was the right opportunity for us; the students need to know that the decisions they make in design have implications in the real world and it’s truly important that they’re specifying products that they know they can get hold of.’ Martin Twamley, STEICO


‘TTF sponsors the TRADA University Challenge because we need trained, knowledgeable professionals who understand the wide range of timber products available and the applications to which they are suited. This competition is a great way to start our future professionals on that journey.’ David Hopkins, TTF


‘The TRADA University Challenge is a unique opportunity for Stora Enso to see what the students of today are thinking and how they plan to build with timber.’ Jennifer Eriksson, Stora Enso


‘The TRADA University Challenge is a wonderful opportunity for students to work across disciplines, with people who might have very different perspectives on a given problem and therefore approach it in a different way. It also gives students the opportunity to interact with lots of different professionals who are here as judges; that insight into what the world after university looks like forces them to think in practical terms. They are being introduced to a type of material that they might not necessarily come across during their student years, nor during their first years as professionals depending on who their employer is – so I think it’s really important to widen people’s horizons like that.’ Christiane Lellig, Wood for Good


‘We got involved initially to ensure that students are aware that, yes, they can use timber – which is a fantastic material – but they need to ensure that they specify it from a sustainable source. Not everybody knows that there are certification schemes which assure that these products come from sustainable forest areas. It’s great to get a hold of people at this level, because it’s very hard once they’re in architectural and engineering practices. If we can instil that advice in them at this stage then that’s great for the future.’ Alun Watkins, PEFC UK


For more information about next year's competition, please contact Tabitha Binding, TRADA's University Engagement Programme Manager: