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    ‘Architects need to wake-up and re-engage with construction’: UK architect Andrew Waugh on CLT and rethinking architecture expression

    Nathan Johnson

    Andrew Waugh is the RIBA award-winning principal and founding Director of Waugh Thistleton, a world leading architecture practice in sustainable design and the use of cross-laminated timber.

    He was recently in Australia to present as part of Wood Solutions seminars in Melbourne and Brisbane.

    We caught up with him to discuss his affinity for CLT, its limitations and capabilities, and whether it could foster an entirely new style of architecture.

    Why do you think architects are reluctant to use engineered timber?

    Architects are reluctant to build in engineered timber because they don’t understand it. They don’t have a collection of references to timber. We’ve been building in concrete for over a hundred years, and we’ve got lots of references whether in modernism or 20th century design.

    To get the advantages of engineered timber, you have to understand how it works and that takes a proper understanding of the opportunities and investigation of the material but architects are reluctant to embark on something that’s completely new.

    Architects are also not terribly well paid. It’s quite a struggle just to do the job well, and to take the extra leap takes some energy.


    The industry works with opaque costs based on unspecified risks, built using a process that is unhealthy – when we’re talking about building people’s homes. Current building is like calling a mini-cab, and being forced to wait around for 10 minutes and hope the driver doesn’t take you for a ride and rip you off, compared to Uber.

     

    Does it require a drastically different skill set or design process?

    The design process is not vastly different with CLT. There are amazing opportunities with this evolving new building material. It needs passion, buy-in and a willingness to re-engage with construction and materials

    CLT could be part of a move towards a more simple form of building, a move away from the daredevil ‘starchitect’ type tactics. The best thing for our cities is not a cacophony of styles and buildings. That’s not beautiful. People like cities with harmony in architecture, not cities dominated by individual architect expression.

    Lots of architects refer to themselves as being in the design industry. We’re actually in the construction industry, even if our part of it is designing buildings. We need to be master builders, and know how the process of construction works.

    There’s a culture of not engaging with construction in our profession, and that’s a malaise. Some schools of architecture are guiltier of it than others.  If we don’t re-engage with construction, it will marginalise our profession.

    It’s a call to arms. Architects need to wake up and re-engage with construction and understand how buildings work!

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    Dalston Lane in London, UK by Waugh Thistleton Architects will comprise 4,500 cubic metres of CLT and once complete be the world’s largest CLT project. It is also expected to save 2,400 tonnes of carbon, compared with an equivalent building with a concrete steel construction. Photography by Daniel Shearing

    Can CLT be a leader in the movement towards the industrialisation of architecture?

    CLT should absolutely be a leader in this movement. Engineered timbers are pre-fabricated materials, made to the design an architect has drawn, and components of the final product.

    They’re prefabricated in a factory and simply screwed together on site. That means there’s less time on site, and it’s safer.

    Our industry sorely needs disruption. If you compare our industry to car manufacturing, we have stayed the same and it has become far more sophisticated. Whether you’re building a thousand homes or re-doing your bathroom, building today is still an unpleasant process. It should be fun and rewarding!

    The industry works with opaque costs based on unspecified risks, built using a process that is unhealthy – when we’re talking about building people’s homes. Current building is like calling a mini-cab, and being forced to wait around for 10 minutes and hope the driver doesn’t take you for a ride and rip you off, compared to Uber.

    What are its limitations?

    The main limitations for CLT at the moment are perceptions, and lack of experience. This material is in evolution. It will bring a new architectural style. We don’t yet know what style it will bring, but it will be a style with substance. It will be a new 21st century architecture based on natural materials.

    We all prefer natural materials. Almost no-one wants to wear nylon, or eat processed food. There are lots of studies showing children educated in timber buildings have higher concentration, and lower stress levels.

    When we surround ourselves with natural materials we’re happier and healthier, and yet we surround ourselves with buildings from processed products.

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    Completed in 2009, Murray Grove by Waugh Thistleton comprises 29 fully insulted and sound proof apartments constructed from CLT. Photography by Will Pryce

    Are there any designs that CLT couldn’t perform or would be costly to maintain? Curves? Exposed verandas and soffits?

    You can curve CLT – it’s not easy, but there again it’s not that easy to curve concrete. It can all be done, but it’s a matter of how detailed you want the design to be. Sometimes if the design ‘answer’ is difficult, it could mean you’re asking the wrong question.

    We’re getting better at using CLT all the time, and pushing the boundaries of what we can do with it.

    When it comes to exposed areas, again you can use CLT, it’s just a matter about how it’s sheltered and protected. The material can be physically covered, or it can be encapsulated with varnish. These materials are becoming more sophisticated and evolving.

    How does reducing thermal mass (removal of concrete) change the way you control internal temperatures of a CLT building?

    When you build in concrete, you have huge thermal mass. Concrete gets really hot, and really cold, and so standards have been developed around thermal transmission.

    Engineered timber has a far softer thermal dynamic. It behaves in a more calm, humane manner, so the lack of thermal mass isn’t a problem.

    We need to push to measure actual energy use in buildings, not thermal resistance – which isn’t an accurate measure of how engineered timber performs. When we engineer buildings to meet thermal resistance standards set for concrete, we find that actually the timber far out-performs concrete in terms of energy use.

    Building cities in concrete creates urban heat islands, and that’s not good for the future of humanity, and the future of humanity is in cities.

    When you start working with timber, you realise how much of everything we do is based around concrete, the way labour is divided into professions, the programs of building, the machinery etcetera.

    What is the number one challenge we need to overcome to see a larger uptake of CLT in Australia?

    Larger uptake of CLT in Australia will require changes in perceptions, along with local manufacture.

    Local manufacture is on its way, with an Xlam factory due to start production in Australia later this year. It will produce a proper, mature product the equal of anything seen in Europe.

    Judging from the response to my talks at Wood Solutions events in Australia, architects are taking a keen interest. You can tell the level of success in a talk by the number of questions and, particularly in Brisbane, we just about had to herd them out of the room.

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