15 October 2020

Enabling tomorrow’s timber designers today

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Timber education is essential to excite, empower and inform engineering students.


We believe timber use in construction is essential for the sustainability of our planet. Designing timber structures: an introduction aims to make timber, as a structural building material, more accessible. The wider implication is this: if we can make the timber design process easier for students and their lecturers to engage with, this will encourage the wider exploration of timber in structural engineering by our future designers and engineering professionals.


Who is the book aimed at?

Our new textbook is aimed at those with some basic structural or engineering knowledge, but who have never used timber to design a building. They might be university engineering undergraduates or postgraduates, or individuals undertaking courses with the IStructE. The idea is to introduce these students to design more generally and timber design specifically. We hope this book will open up a new world of knowledge, encouraging our future professionals to design buildings with timber, but also to see timber as a viable, exciting and natural material choice.


Designing timber structures: an introduction will help readers access a wide variety of technical information, from Eurocodes to the latest TRADA Wood Information Sheets. It aims to be a companion to help students navigate designing with timber, to understand the technical calculations required and where additional information to support their design work can be located. By the time they have finished this book, students should understand the difference between kmod and kdef, but more than that they will understand why these different factors are important.


What does the book cover?

The book starts with a thorough introduction to timber as a material, outlining the different material properties and the quirks of designing with a natural building material. Four technical chapters then build knowledge progressively. They cover simple timber construction, showing students how to design:

  • sawn timber joists
  • stud wall design and construction, including consideration of stability
  • glulam frames, including consideration of connections
  • CLT structures, including consideration of vibration.


The book concludes with some wider considerations such as fire, acoustics, detailing, reuse and robustness.


Each of the different technical chapters includes a variety of colour illustrations from technical sketches and graphs to plan drawings and site photographs. This highly-visual approach enables students to read the technical detail, then see it in application to cement their understanding. Each technical chapter ends with a step-by-step worked example to enable students to see how you might actually go about designing and detailing with the different products.


Why a book on timber?

The world is changing, and fast. The UK needs to be carbon neutral by 2050. The world needs to greatly increase circular economies. We believe that there are two important parts to the solution:

  • substantially more re-use of existing buildings
  • building with timber.


By building with timber we are building with one of the only renewable structural materials. (Straw and hemp are valuable ecologically friendly materials but we leave them aside here as generally they are used as insulation, not for structure.) We can increase the number of well-managed forests in the world by increasing demand for certified structural timber. Both are hugely beneficial when the world desperately needs more trees.


Equally important is the attitude of young people towards the environment. Students want to learn about renewable building materials; they want to design buildings with low- or zero-carbon footprints – from both a construction and an operational viewpoint. This book will introduce students to the basic concepts of timber design in an approachable and informative style, giving them confidence to explore this material further.


What can industry do?

It feels like the timber construction industry is in a really exciting place, but when writing this book, a number of questions and challenges came to our minds. These are not intended as criticisms of the timber industry, but more observations of how students feel if they try and design using timber.

  1. More standard sizing would be helpful. When different suppliers have their own sizing system, it makes it really hard to know where to start. By standardizing sizes, timber would become more accessible. This is apparent across a range of products, whether CLT, glulam or sawn timber.
  2. A greater sharing of information. There is, of course, competitive advantage to holding intellectual property. But if we want timber construction to grow, we need to remove barriers to growth and availability. Accessibility of information, especially for the latest engineered timber products, is a key consideration.
  3. Involve the engineers of the future in your business. Sponsor student events to encourage designing and building in timber. Offer free information to students or take your knowledge into universities and colleges to help educate students in all the amazing ways timber can be used in structural design. The earlier we can connect students to the timber industry, the more likely they are to use the material in their designs once they qualify.


Final thoughts

Timber is not routinely covered in all engineering courses. Lecturers can reinvigorate their enthusiasm by using this book and further exploring recent developments in timber design. Timber in construction is gaining in prominence, nowhere more clearly than in this year’s RIBA Stirling prize, where the use of timber in so many of the shortlisted entries was dynamic, structural and sculptural. Steel and concrete are valuable, but timber is the future; let’s get students excited!


About the authors

Dr James Norman and Dr Andrew Thomson are passionate advocates of timber in engineering design. James is Associate Professor in Sustainable Design at the University of Bristol and his previous books include TRADA publication Structural timber elements: a pre-scheme design guide and IStructE publication Conceptual design of buildings.


Andrew has been a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath whose teaching interests include creativity in structural engineering, collaborative design and the use of appropriate materials with a specialism in timber. Both worked extensively in private practice before moving into teaching and drew on that wealth of sustainable design experience to bring Designing timber structures: an introduction to life.


Designing timber structures: an introduction

Understanding and specifying sustainable materials in building design is now critical for designers, if net zero carbon goals are to be achieved. Designing timber structures: an introduction is an essential primer for structural engineering students and more experienced graduates new to designing with timber - the only major renewable structural material for building. It includes end-of-chapter worked examples and is highly illustrated, with over 250 drawings and photographs.


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