Guest Blog: Tabitha Binding, Head of Education and Engagement at Timber Development UK

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“He’s a builder, he’ll just know how to build it.” This was the response Tabitha Binding, Head of Education and Engagement at Timber Development UK, received when supporting a winning group of student architects to make their successful timber-framed concept an installation reality at the London Design Festival.

Yet when Tabitha sat down with the architects and expert carpenter enlisted to build the installation, they found they were all talking a completely different language.

The architects were communicating with 3D software, while the carpenter, using pencil and paper, was seeking to understand how the dimensions met to ensure the structure would be supported correctly. Through collaboration, help from other timber trade experts and hands-on experience during the installation’s construction, all parties shared their knowledge and the communication barriers disappeared.

Encouraging education and engagement around the use of timber in construction, as Tabitha’s job title suggests, is exactly what her role is all about. During this interview, we discover why we need to educate and upskill the students of today, who will become tomorrow’s specifiers, designers, engineers, project managers, quantity surveyors and contractors. We need everyone to understand how to use timber wisely if we are going to create a future full of low-carbon timber construction.

What is your role and why is it important for timber construction?

I work with industry, professionals, academia, and students to enthuse, encourage and educate – to increase knowledge and competency in timber as we transition to a biobased economy.

With 5,000 architecture and 5,000 engineering students entering the world of construction and the built environment every year, business as usual is no longer an option. We have to change the way we build to create a low carbon, sustainable future.

We spend our lifetime in buildings and most of our money on our homes. And yet, while architecture and engineering are viewed as ‘suitable’ career choices, construction itself often isn’t, despite its vital importance to the UK economy. Let’s face it, without construction experts to build our homes and buildings, we’d be pretty stuck.

The most impactful decisions on carbon emissions in the built environment are made long before the foundations of a building are laid down. They happen in architects’ studios, within the offices of city planners, and in the engineering space. Decisions made during the project development phases impact both operational and embodied emissions, as well as how residents will live and work in these structures.

My role is to bring the design and delivery disciplines together to build better and understand more clearly the purpose of each building, to give everyone pride in their work and stimulate mutual respect across the timber construction supply chain.

What are the main roadblocks to creating low-carbon buildings in the UK?

One of the key roadblocks has been the educational gap around timber, which often features as little more than a day of learning and coursework within some universities. Departments can be disparate with scant collaboration across the built environment subjects, and some less progressive universities are even still teaching outdated methodologies. As a result, many students simply don’t know any better. Many also don’t have any hands-on experience that can contribute to a more rounded and knowledgeable approach to timber construction.

This means graduates emerge without the knowledge, ability, or confidence to employ timber systems. With our University Engagement Programme, we are seeking to change this – and make timber systems and technologies a core pillar of any built environment course in the UK.

What other initiatives are you implementing to overcome the timber-related education gap?

An important part of what I do is delivering project-based learning that breaks down barriers between professions, and facilitates dynamic learning and practical, transferable timber skills.

One way we do this is by running interdisciplinary challenges where Timber Development UK (TDUK), the now amalgamated Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and Timber Research and Development Association (TRADA), hosts a workshop based on a real-life project.

For example, the one we did just before lockdown was sponsored by timber industry partners and saw 58 students from universities across the UK gather at Cardiff University and compete to design, cost and engineer the best low-carbon, energy and water efficient timber community housing in less than 48 hours.

Each team consisted of student engineers, architects, architectural technologists, quantity surveyors and landscape architects, and received hands-on support from pioneering design professionals and industry members, including judges from Mikhail Riches, Cullinan Studio, Stride Treglown, Ramboll, BuroHappold, Entuitive, Gardiner & Theobald and PLAN:design.

How is the STA supporting your quest?

Last year’s competition Riverside Sunderland University Design Challenge (RSUDC21), saw 300 students design, engineer, plan and cost a three-bed family home along with an indicative masterplan for 100 homes to meet RIBA2030 Climate Challenge targets – with low-carbon timber and timber-hybrid systems providing the main material focus.

The STA’s chief executive, Andrew Carpenter, spoke directly to the students during the weekly Friday ‘virtual catch up’ session and enabled access to the STA’s vast information library whilst the Association’s Technical Consultant also supported the event, delivering a webinar on timber and fire. They were among 78 professionals who participated across a 12-part webinar series, which proved to be a unique and ambitious learning opportunity for the whole industry. Experts presented on everything from sustainable timber and offsite manufacturing, counting carbon, timber challenges and structural engineering to how you cost and budget timber to post-occupancy evaluation – the webinar series is still available as a learning asset on YouTube.

Are there any specific hotspots in the timber supply chain that you’re focusing on going forward?

Yes, definitely. One hotspot is the point at which design and construction meet. Tackling this collision proactively, I’m currently working strategically with New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) as its Centre for Advanced Timber Technology (CATT) Lead for External Engagements and Partnerships to deliver training that encourages greater design and construction collaboration across the supply chain.

We’re looking to develop some short courses and CPDs into a longer Bachelors degree in Sustainable Built Environment over the next year and, starting in September 2022, we will be running some interactive education days that will bring together the whole supply chain.

These will invite architects, engineers, clients and cost consultants, contractors and timber industry supply chain experts, such as offsite frame manufacturers, to up skill, reskill and address topical industry issues. Topics on the table embrace everything from level foundations to air tightness and energy performance and, of course, tackling the reduction in carbon at element, building and operational levels. Allowing people to exchange really good knowledge and encourage more collaboration will ensure that where we build with timber, we also build better with timber.

How did you find yourself in the timber industry?

I started out aged 17 working with coppiced hazel and softwood thinning. My first engagement with the timber construction industry was when I joined the Welsh timber charity Coed Cymru Cyf in 2010. The charity focuses on creating and managing Welsh woodlands for multiple benefits.

From there I was involved with ‘Tŷ Unnos’ – literally translated as ‘a house in one night’. The name was chosen to convey a fast and adaptable building system making use of local material and local labour, all based around Welsh timber. It led to the development of a fully certified volumetric offsite system, where buildings left the factory fully finished and fitted. That’s when I got involved with post occupancy evaluation, design for manufacture and assembly, plus disassembly & reuse and the Passivhaus energy efficiency standard.

I’ve also worked on European technical guidance, thermal modification of Larch for joinery with Bangor University, a Wood Encouragement Policy with Wood Knowledge Wales, which was adopted by Powys County Council in 2017 and, more recently, joined TRADA in 2018 to focus on education and engagement in universities. The rest, as they say, is history!

Do you have a takeaway message for the industry?

Absolutely. It’s all about collaboration early on. If we work together across disciplines we will have more fun, be more productive, less wasteful and create better buildings that are both energy and resource efficient and beneficial to human and planetary health.

To join in, keep an eye on the new Timber Development UK website for the collaborative opportunities arising when we launch in September.

Connect with Tabitha Binding on LinkedIn

The STA echoes this collaborative approach, working closely with members, stakeholders and the UK construction industry to address the issues that timber construction faces. The STA’s mission is to enhance quality and drive product innovation through technical guidance and research, underpinned by a members’ quality standard assessment – the STA Assure Membership and Quality Standards Scheme.

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