Founding Director of London-based architecture firm de Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects (dRMM), Alex de Rijke has played a central role in pioneering cross-laminated timber panel construction in the UK and Australia.

de Rijke is currently touring Australia as part of a Forest and Wood Products Australia and WoodSolutions-sponsored seminar series that discusses the role of engineered timber in 21st century architecture.

Architecture & Design caught up with de Rijke to see why he thinks architects are increasingly turning to wood to construct big buildings and how technological advancements will see engineered timber increasingly specified by architects in the future. 

What tips would you give architects considering using cross-laminated timber (CLT) for domestic architecture for the first time?

Don’t just think of CLT as a replacement for concrete but as a beautiful material in its own right which you can do different things with.

During the design phase, it’s worth considering what size the panels come in to avoid waste and cost.

Use your imagination, but be practical – for example, CLT needs to be kept out of the ground and out of the rain.

CLT doesn’t need to be covered internally with paint or plasterboard but, in order to enjoy its looks, you need to be careful not to damage it in the construction process.

What’s the main difference in using CLT compared to more conventional materials?

The speed of construction – it’s phenomenally fast. You could literally build a house in a day or two – all the preparation happens beforehand rather than on site.

You don’t need large numbers of highly skilled tradespeople on site. You need one person to operate the crane, and two people to handle the panels on the ground.

Modern engineered timber is lighter than concrete but can be as strong as concrete, provide better insulation properties and is actually fire resistant, not to mention a crucial store of carbon.

Timber is the new concrete. The vast potential and versatility of engineered timber holds the key to construction for the 21st century, just as the 18th century was about brick, the 19th steel, and the 20th was concrete.

What are the challenges facing engineered timber?

Ignorance is the biggest challenge. People aren’t familiar with it and don’t realise its advantages. They can be suspicious or not believe it’s worth doing that way, as opposed to the way they’ve always done it. It’s not just contractors who can need convincing, but local authorities and insurers.

Engineered timber is a very practical material and any issues can be demonstrably shown to not be anything to worry about. For example, many people are concerned about fire but mass timber behaves very differently to conventional timber and has strong performance in this area.

How do you see the material evolving?

I think there will be a wider range of types of timber used to make CLT, and it will evolve in that it will be produced in Australia in future rather than being imported from Europe or New Zealand.

The product will become available in more different sizes and with a wider range of finishes – I think a curved CLT would be interesting to develop. Fixings will also become more sophisticated, perhaps even secreted inside the timber a bit like flat pack furniture.

My company dRMM has used CLT made from sustainably harvested Tulipwood, a hard wood. It’s very light and strong, as well as very beautiful. We’re currently using it in a building for the UK cancer charity Maggies.

When do you think engineered timber will become considered a conventional building material?

Engineered timber is already considered conventional in some countries. It’s definitely an option designers would consider in Germany or Switzerland.

In the UK, it would definitely be considered to be one of the materials you can select from when it comes to educational projects. We pioneered the use of CLT in that area, and the success of those projects brought a lot of publicity.

In Australia, I’ve found a lot of interest from local authorities, architects, engineers and even politicians. My prediction? It’ll be considered conventional in Australia by 2020.