04 December 2019

The Better Timber Buildings conference: 2019 highlights

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With the appeal of expert advice based on empirical evidence and a culmination of decades’ worth of experience, TRADA’s flagship event last month pulled in over 150 delegates from across the entire supply chain for its second year running.


The Better Timber Buildings conference, which took place at the Royal Geographical Society in London, invited speakers from across the timber industry to deliver a cohesive, informative programme of topics which combine to provide a robust foundation for the development of high quality timber buildings.


Rupert Scott, Membership and Marketing Manager, TRADA, said: ‘TRADA believes that timber has an important role to play in the coming years – particularly in the mitigation of the climate crisis, in combating the current upward trend of mental health problems, and in solving the housing shortage. Timber is a natural, sustainable material with the remarkable ability to lock in carbon and, further, has a natural compatibility with many of the anticipated solutions to these problems, including off-site construction, biophilic design and energy efficiency standards such as Passivhaus.


‘The recent uptake of timber building design is greatly encouraging. Many attendees I spoke with said they were keen to do more with timber, so we hope our conference meets and fills that demand in the industry, providing a necessary platform for attendees to network with others on the same path.’



Sam Elliott, Development Director, The Office Group, kicked off the conference with a client’s perspective of using timber. The Office Group’s ethos combines bespoke design with biophilic design, experimentation and feature joinery, driven by a goal of sustainability and wellness. Of the relationship between biophilic design and feature joinery, he said: ‘between the greenery and joinery as interior fit-out finishes, there’s just something that feels warmer and more comfortable about being in a building where you’re surrounded by timber’. He discussed the many obstacles to use – including fear of the new or unknown, the cost premium, fire performance, risk of damage during installation and acoustic considerations – and also explained how many of these obstacles could be removed or reduced.


Nick Ling, Technical Design Lead, Heatherwick Studio, gave an in-depth behind the scenes look at the design process for Maggie’s Yorkshire, a project complicated by a steep site (-6m) on contaminated land which required minimal disruption and a brief which called for 110 visitors a day, which was warm and tactile, low maintenance and healthy, on a restricted site. Specifically, ‘a home people would not have dared build themselves’. He said timber framing and hand worked plaster were employed to give a homely aesthetic, while they consciously selected natural and breathable materials. Nick added: ‘Making is really at the heart of the studio. We are particularly interested in the materiality of our projects and how people experience them at a human scale’.


Jennifer Eriksson, Timber Engineer, Stora Enso, talked about the investigation Stora Enso is currently undertaking with TRADA’s service provider BM TRADA into the moisture dynamic of CLT, since the findings of similar timber research is not always directly transferable to CLT. The project seeks to establish the most time- and cost-effective method to dry CLT which has become wet during construction and, by extension, minimise the stresses that can occur as a result in the timber, in the joints and in the adhesives. The investigation sees 8 weeks of wetting using trace dye, then a 4-5 month phase of drying using various drying regimes.


Jennifer also referred to a test using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to see if they still provide accurate readings following the manufacturing process, which would make it easy to discover high moisture content in the timber before issues arise.


Steve Cook, Product Improvement & Innovation Manager, Willmott Dixon, dissected the forms of off-site timber construction, frame selection, and how timber fits in. Willmott Dixon undertook considerable research into frame selection and ultimately developed a Structural Selector which considers the most popular forms of off-site against technical parameters and a subjective weighting devised by well-rounded multidisciplinary teams. These technical parameters include: programme, health and safety, quality and buildability, environmental, and market forces. While the back end of the Structural Selector is vastly complex, the front end is easy to use; the research has been streamlined into four drop-down menus – market sector, number of storeys, design life and whether or not passive thermal mass is required for the energy model.


Dr Keerthi Ranasinghe, Senior Lecturer & Programme Director for Civil Engineering & Quantity Surveying, University of Wales Trinity Saint David, then took to the stage to launch the Manual for the design of timber building structures to Eurocode 5 2nd edition. Keerthi, who was the revising author, hailed it ‘the leading resource for timber engineering’.


Danny Hopkin, Technical Director, OFR Consultants Ltd, gave a fire engineer’s perspective on fire safety design of mass timber buildings and discussed what it means to comply with Part B when designing medium and higher rise timber buildings. Up until November 2018, he said, these were wholly performance based – you had to satisfy performance based requirements to pass. However, following Grenfell, the response was to add a prescriptive anomaly which is an explicit legal requirement for residential buildings with the top floor level over 18 metres. This effectively limits the materials used in external walls to those which are officially classified as non-combustible.


Danny also discussed the origin of fire resistance testing and the associated time temperature curve, which was established broadly as it is now in the early 1900s. This heating regime assumes a fire which is ultimately self-extinguishing and predominantly consumes the contents of the building rather than the building itself. Where large areas of the structure could contribute to the fire load itself, appraisal is necessary to assess how to ensure that sufficient life safety provisions continue to be provided – this is the work of the fire engineer.


Alex Abbey, Partner, Cullinan Studio, celebrated the TRADA publication Procuring engineered timber buildings: A client’s guide, which is a series of realistic, frequently asked questions and answers. The guide strives to challenge misconceptions and inform clients considering using timber in their projects – simplifying the process for newcomers to the material, at a time when the construction industry is waking up to the environmental benefits of incorporating timber into their buildings.


‘A building is a social act’, Alex commented, ‘and you could say “social” now stretches to include “environmental”. It’s one and the same … There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be considering timber to build your project’.


Robin Lancashire, Senior Timber Frame Consultant, BM TRADA, has recently been involved with the Erasmus+ Knowledge Alliance for Sustainable Mid-Rise and Tall Wooden Buildings alongside lecturers from Denmark, Lithuania, Spain, and Canada, and participated in projects such as Wales’ Home Grown Homes. Using his experiences of international approaches, Robin compared foreign perceptions of timber and mass timber buildings, examined the National Building Code of Canada (NBC) and highlighted opportunities for improving the timber construction supply chain.


Ed Suttie, Research Director, BRE, presented a tantalising research-driven argument for the adoption of biophilic design, timber design and healthy building principles to bolster staff in work environments during the current upward trend of stress-related illness, mental health disorders, urbanisation and modern day lifestyles which are largely indoor. Ed argued that cost of staff accounts for 90% of typical business operating costs at a time when people are honing in on energy efficiency and rental cost; he advocates introducing more timber products into our daily environments. Ed, who wrote the TRADA Briefing The role of wood in healthy buildings earlier this year, emphasised the positive impact of timber on human psychology and physiology, and agreed that we should be specifying timber for these reasons.


'TRADA's Better Timber Buildings conference has become the engineered timber conference of the year. With the whole industry represented and a brilliant and diverse line-up of speakers, we came away with an incredible insight to design and build better and greener buildings.'
– Patrick Usborne, Director, Perpendicular Architecture


'I thoroughly enjoyed the day. It was great to connect and reconnect with so many interesting and enthusiastic timber professionals. The variety of perspectives from the different speakers gave a well-rounded holistic view on what makes timber buildings work. I’m very much looking forward to more of the same next year!'
– Tom Harley-Tuffs, Senior Engineer, Ramboll


‘[There were] excellent and very relevant presentations on guidance for clients [regarding] mass timber, durability, fire engineering and wellbeing, not to mention the inspiring presentation by Heatherwick Studio on the Maggie's Centre in Leeds.’
– Ian Craig, Director, Evolve Consulting Engineers


'Thanks for a very useful day yesterday. It was very timely for me, informative and I made some good connections all in a short space of time!'
– George Fereday, Associate Teaching Professor, Sir John Cass School of Architecture


'As an exhibitor I thought the conference was very useful. We reconnected with key people in the industry and met some interesting new contacts. Low carbon buildings is now a very topical subject and this conference provides a great space to share knowledge and ideas. We will undoubtedly be back next year.'
– Tom Barnes, Vastern Timber


'So good for networking, making introductions and connecting people. There is nothing like introducing people face to face with a brief synopsis of why you think it’s relevant to both of them – you know it's worked when you later see them still deep in conversation or swapping cards...'
– Tabitha Binding, TRADA & TTF University and Regional Engagement Manager 


Save the date! Join us again next year on 11/11/2020. If you are interested in exhibiting, please get in touch with Jane Lomas on jlomas@trada.co.uk.


Many thanks to our exhibitors Gilmour & Aitken, PIVETEAUBOIS, Pollmeier, Rothoblaas, Sherpa, Steico, Trimble, Vastern Timber, ZÜBLIN, Hoppings Softwood Products and the Structural Timber magazine for their fantastic support on the day.