Belarusian Memorial Chapel, Woodside Park, London

Introduction

When the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded in 1986, it devastated the land and people of Belarus with radioactive fallout, contaminating a quarter of the country. A new timber chapel commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of that terrible event, which forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes and land and settle elsewhere. Many came to the UK, joining other Belarusians who had been displaced by the country’s turbulent past – by persecution, suppression and the ravages of the Second World War, in which a quarter of the Belarusian population was killed. Many Belarusians settled in the north London suburb of Woodside Park and in 1948 a community and cultural centre for the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church in London, Marian House, was established.

The new chapel, designed by Spheron Architects, stands in the grounds of Marian House, a parkland landscape of protected mature trees. It is the first timber church to be built in London since the Great Fire of 1666 and the use of timber has a historic and cultural significance; a reminder of the traumatic loss after Chernobyl of many Belarusian settlements whose houses and churches were nearly all built of timber. Tszwai So, director of Spheron Architects, visited Belarus to study and sketch the remaining traditional churches at first hand. The result of his observations are present in the new chapel which incorporates all the essential elements of a traditional Belarusian church; timber structure and weatherboard cladding, an onion-dome bell tower with a bell donated by the monks of Chevetogne Abbey, and a pitched roof clad with cedar shakes. Inside the chapel, a simple single-storey nave faces the iconostasis where traditional icons are displayed. The material palette is closely restricted to timber and glass, reflecting the austere and tranquil beauty of traditional timber churches in Belarus.

Yet the chapel is not just a basic traditional form, a series of contemporary elements has been introduced by the architect, such as the undulating set of vertical timber boards which line the external side walls. In the interiors of traditional Belarusian churches the structural timber frame is generally visible; the chapel also has a timber frame but the small scale of the building suggested to the architect that the interior surfaces should be clean and simple, lined with with cross-laminated (CLT) panels to create a warm cocoon-like timber interior.

The choice of timber

Wherever possible the architect specified softwood species for construction, following the tradition of churches in Belarus where softwood is the predominant material. The principal structural frame is of fresh sawn native Douglas fir, chosen for its appearance, reduced drying shrinkage and its ability to yield very large structural sections. The frame is assembled with a hybrid of traditional mortice and tenon joints, using engineered joints where necessary to achieve the required stability. The joints are hidden where possible. The frame was fabricated and erected to an exacting tolerance of 2mm in order to accurately interface with the machine cut CLT panels.

The CLT panels were sourced in Spain and are of Radiata pine, a native Spanish softwood which is highly renewable due to its rapid growth rate. The CLT panels were manufactured off­site in Spain in close liaison with the UK framing team.

The entrance doors and solid timber flooring are also Douglas fir, maintaining the limited palette of materials and uniformity of appearance. The board dimensions and grade for the flooring could only be achieved through the use of Canadian grown timber. The external cladding boards are of fresh sawn native Douglas fir, selected due to the availability of wide plank sections in high grade material and stability in service.

The roof and projecting bell tower and dome are clad with cedar shakes, with oak used for the delicate cupola at the top.

All timber used is self finished and external timbers will weather naturally. The overall appearance is of a building made entirely of timber.

Construction

The entrance to the chapel is filled with light emanating from the glazed and timber framed bell tower above it. The bell tower is supported by a sturdy Douglas fir frame, typically of 150 x 300mm and 200 x 300mm beams and 150 x 230mm posts, traditionally mortice and tenon jointed with oak pegs. The main beams on each side of the bell towere are jettied and strenghtened with 200 x 430mm Douglas fir braces. Moment resisting joints are centrally spliced with 10mm steel plates, fixed with concealed dowels.

To create a clean and simple interior nave, appropriate to the small size of the chapel, the Douglas fir frame is limited to a 200 x 300mm post at each corner with an additional four posts arranged in a segmented curve to support the chancel, which is hidden from public view by the iconostasis.

Both sides of the nave are lined with exposed 140mm thick cross-laminated (CLT) wall panels which span eight metres front to back, challenging the boundaries of what is possible with CLT and bracing the Douglas fir frame elements. Above and below the long span of CLT are low and high level frameless glazed panels which, together with full height glazing on the front elevation, provide natural light. At night the chapel becomes a glowing beacon, lit by diffused lighting behind the glazing.

The Douglas fir support posts in the chancel are braced by similar CLT panels. All the CLT wall panels are lined with 200mm rigid insulation, 25mm timber battens and counter-battens securing a series of vertical 25mm Douglas fir cladding boards. Between them, at 245mm spacing, are set a series of vertical fins, 75mm thick which vary in width to form an undulating wall.

The roof is a similar construction, the Douglas fir frame braced by a pair of 200mm thick CLT panels which are fixed to the fame with concealed fixings and follow the pitch of the roof. Above them are 150mm insulation panels, counter and tiling battens, and a roof covering of cedar shakes. The cupola to the bell tower is also clad with cedar shakes; the delicate timber lantern above has oak ventilation louvres and is clad with lead.

Sustainability

Spheron Architects have integrated various sustainable strategies into the development of the chapel, minimising the overall energy consumption, maintenance and carbon footprint throughout the lifecycle of the building. A combination of offsite prefabrication, the predominant use of natural materials, efficient glazing and heat recovery ventilation contribute to the efficiency of the building. The lead-domed lantern capping the cupola is in fact a louvred passive-ventilation stack. Native, fresh sawn timber from CFS sources was used wherever it could achieve the specification, to minimise the environmental impact of the building fabric.

Commissioned and funded by the Holy See of Rome, the new chapel sets a precedent for contemporary ecclesiastical architecture.

Awards

2017 Wood Awards: Small Project, Highly Commended

2017 RIBA London Award, Winner

2017 New London Awards: People's choice, Winner

2017 National Churches Trust Awards: Young Church Architect, Tszwai So, Winner

2017 Structural Timber Awards, Finalist

 

Completion Date:

December 2016

Building Type:

Chapel

Location:

Woodside Park, London

Client:

The Holy See of Rome

Architect:

Spheron Architects

Structural Engineer:

Timberwright Ltd

Environmental/M&E engineer:

Arup

Main Contractor:

Timberwright Ltd

Joinery:

T Clark & Co Joinery Ltd

Timber Supplier:

Egoin UK, East Bros Timber Ltd

Timber Elements:

Structure, external and internal cladding, roof covering, floor, doors and windows, bell tower

Timber Species:

UK Douglas fir, Spanish Radiata Pine, Canadian Western Red cedar, Canadian Douglas fir floor boards

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