24 September 2021

Project-based learning

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The 9th of August saw the 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publish Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report. It makes stark reading as it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land by excessive production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.


The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented. Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. Global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades.


The UK will see increases in the frequency and intensity of hot extremes, along with heavy or reduced precipitation, leading to both droughts and floods. All this significantly affects the Built Environment.


To encourage Climate Literacy and to address how the use of timber has the potential to reduce operational carbon emissions as well as embodied carbon whilst also sequestering carbon, we developed an online student challenge. The Riverside Sunderland: University Design Challenge (RSUDC21), which ran from February to July this year, bought the best knowledge on carbon, energy, timber products, health and wellbeing, and collaborative future housing design to the attention of our future built environment professionals. The webinar series has had over 3,000 viewings since the recorded live events were subsequently uploaded on YouTube, leaving a valuable knowledge and information legacy for students, lecturers, and professionals.


RSUDC21 reached students at 39 universities and bought together 27 multi-disciplinary teams, with 16 completing the challenge and sending in outstanding entries that showed their vision for a masterplan of 100 homes and one 3-bed home in detail. Solid timber, glulam, I-Joists and CLT were used in the structure. Some went for concrete-free foundations. Timber stairs, flooring, windows, and doors were used as well as timber cladding, decking and street furniture. The team entries can be viewed here.


Reducing emissions – the opportunities

If timber is to be used to reduce emissions whilst also benefitting the environment during the tree’s growth, it must be used wisely and well. This includes:

  • choosing the right species and product;
  • detailing for moisture in construction and in use;
  • minimising the quantities required through good design and engineering;
  • designing for longevity and ease of maintenance; and
  • considering adaptation and end of life product re-use and recycling.


However, should we build at all? Should retrofitting or repurposing an existing building be the first consideration? What part does timber have to play and how can we design a good retrofit strategy with timber products (where appropriate)?


These are the topics I cover as I talk to lecturers, tutors and students at universities and colleges across the UK, while providing links to TRADA’s inspirational timber building case studies, detailed Wood Information Sheets, Books Online, and our Learning Resources.


Project-based learning

Talking and reading are, in fact, only one part of learning. Although the students now have the information to design, engineer or specify – does that theory translate into practice? Often not. It is only by specification and then construction of the designs that you develop holistic knowledge. A few universities understand this and are leading a new form of pedagogy in project-based learning.


R3 Pavilion – University of the West of England



The R3 Pavilion is an outdoor space to meet, work and learn at the University of the West of England (UWE), and was designed in collaboration with local architect Aine Moriarty, by Andrew Bourne, Associate Head of Department for Student Experience, and James Burch, Associate Head of Department for Architecture.


Following the first national lockdown, they bought together volunteer undergraduate students from all year groups studying built environment courses to physically construct the outside aerated space. Using hand tools and standard section structurally graded softwood and exterior plywood both purchased from local supplier Robbins Timber, the volunteers and staff worked 2 days a week throughout the first semester to complete the live build project.


Pavilion 03 – Anglia Ruskin University



Pavilion 03 at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) is the third time the East Anglia Timber Trade Association has supported live build learning by sponsoring the timber components. In a course led by Maria Vogiatzaki, Deputy Head and Professor of Architecture and Planning at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), with engineering support from Toby Maclean at Allt Environmental Structural Engineers, first year architecture and architectural technology students formed teams to design a pavilion.


Whittled down to one design via a process of elimination, ‘One Stroke’ was chosen. Starting with plywood, then moving to Medite Extreme, the iterative process of material choice moved to home-grown oak and larch. Steam-bent green timber secured by stainless steel fixings reduced the environmental impact, and considered end of life and reuse of the components. Working with Charlie Whinney Studio, the pavilion was constructed and erected at the end of the third semester by the students and staff.


Cosy Homes: University of Suffolk



Photo: Lois Whitnell, City-Context-Culture, Site-Specific Artefact, The Co-Habitat; Virtual Micro-Communities Prototype 1:1 and In-Situ Visual.


The University of Suffolk’s architecture course is three-years-old this year and has just received its RIBA Candidate Course status. Promoting ecology, place-making and critical practice, the architecture course is led by Dr Liana Psarologaki. Second year students working with tutor and architect Ben Powell of Manifest Studio were challenged to design and construct a home for bats for a local location of their choice. A clever challenge that incorporates the client’s needs, material choices, construction and detailing – all the students chose timber or timber products.


Following an on-site talk at the Ipswich campus with samples of solid and engineered timber products provided, the students modified their designs and material choices as they learnt about sustainable forestry, species selection, durability and longevity.


Outdoor Classroom – Central Saint Martins & London South Bank University



London and the South East Timber Trade Association (L&SETTA) sponsored the timber and Rothoblaas UK provided the fixings for Walworth Garden’s Horticultural Therapy Shelter to encourage our future specifiers to leave the classroom and gain practical knowledge in construction.


The custom-designed concrete-free, timber frame building is a new home for the horticultural therapy programme (Growing to Grow / Growback). Nestled in the north-west corner of the garden, between a potting shed and cordon apple trees, the 5 metre x 5 metre structure occupies the same footprint as the existing indoor classroom.


Led by architectural researcher and Walworth Gardens volunteer Angharad Davies, we worked with design & build duo Billy Adams and Freddie Wiltshire in collaboration with Cíaran Malik, engineer and course leader at Central Saint Martins, and Todor Demirov, course director of MArch at London South Bank University, to bring this project to fruition.


Working with undergraduate architecture students at Central Saint Martins, graduate students at the London South Bank University and horticultural students at Walworth Gardens, the live design and build project bought essential hands-on learning, knowledge and experience to our future specifiers, which is currently missing from traditional university courses. The shelter has proved to be a success and is in constant use.


Live Builds – Centre for Alternative Technology



The Part 2 Architectural Master’s course at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has always done things differently with live builds being a part of its DNA. This year the newly appointed MArch course leader Dr. Alison Pooley, senior lecturer Gwyn Stacey, and visiting lecturer and longtime collaborator Pat Borer put forward three projects: The Shop – to create an inviting moveable interior for work and display; the Pavilion – a demountable interactive engaging display pavilion to encourage conversations about waste; and the Stage, an outdoor learning and performance space for aBro Dinefwr School in Carmarthen.


Students worked individually or in teams to put forward their ideas before the top three were chosen. After a month refining designs and ordering materials, construction began. The Shop incorporated rammed earth and plywood tables alongside colourful timber seating which included display areas on the reverse. The Pavilion recycled materials from a build last year. The Stage used strength graded larch from local Welsh forests, and after prototyping and building the first segment moved to its home at Bro Dinefwr for final construction.


About the author

TRADA’s Tabitha Binding drives our busy University Engagement Programme, which proactively seeks to encourage lecturers of architecture, engineering and other building-related courses to teach timber as an equal to other materials. To facilitate this, TRADA has developed a range of free teaching materials, runs high-profile design competitions for students, and creates opportunities to collaborate, uniting universities with members of the timber industry.


If you would like to work more closely with us, please get in touch with Tabitha Binding on tbinding@trada.co.uk or 07815 948749.