Oliver Booth is a partner at Gardiner & Theobald LLP, an independent construction and property consultancy for the built environment.
Here is his thinking as to why now is the time for timber.
What is mass timber?
Our definition of mass timber is an engineered timber product, so glulam or cross laminated timber (CLT), or laminated veneer lumber (LVL). These are highly engineered, using glue and engineered timber for structural purposes.
Who are the mass timber forum?
6 to 12 months ago several leading developers that we work with on a regular basis (and have done for many years) gave us the idea to set up a forum inviting predominantly developers, because they’re all interested in mass timber for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons is for the sustainability benefits, in terms of trying to get to carbon neutrality. We aimed to get all of the key stakeholders together – from the insurance industry, the fire engineering industry, sustainability, structures, MEP, acoustics, quantity surveyors, project managers. We then set up a series of eight subject areas. The team here at Gardiner & Theobald started to script it, to reach out and form the panels themselves. Jump forward and now we’ve just finished the third one, which is on fire engineering, with six others to follow.
Are there any insights you can tell us about?
Absolutely. We did an introduction session; we did one with the insurance industry and recently we finished one on fire. Our next one is on sustainability and the whole series so far has exceeded our expectations. We always knew we were going to get some interesting findings. To give you some examples, with insurers, even though we found that our worlds are intrinsically linked, there was a slight disconnect between all of us and the insurance market itself in understanding their needs that affect their premiums and how they view risks. There is certainly something that has come out of this; we all need to share information better amongst ourselves. We need to do more research and testing. We need to create more guidance and best practise so, that using competent designers and professionals in those stakeholder groups, we know what we’re doing every time someone picks up a project.
What are the challenges developers face when using mass timber on projects?
A positive challenge is that they are trying to decarbonize as much as possible. They want to use timber, there’s definitely an aspiration to incorporate it but, like all materials, there are strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, it is important that you don’t force a square into the wrong hole, so to speak. It’s about getting the right design team on board, with competent people across all disciplines. We need to make sure we design mass timber using its strengths, not its weaknesses. In addition, good practice guidance is really important. It’s about surrounding yourself with the best people and making sure you access the right information and design buildings that work really well with mass timber.
How can we address those challenges going forward?
I think the Structural Timber Association (STA), TRADA and the Timber Trade Federation are doing exactly the right thing. They are working together, so they’re not working against each other. They are reaching out to all the different disciplines across different stakeholders, from the insurance industry, to developers, to the funders, all the way through to suppliers and subcontractors. They are carrying out research to help give us the information that can help make informed decisions, particularly the special interest group and the work they’ve been doing on fire research. It is an example of disseminating key information; writing best practice guides, good guidance when talking to building control and making this information legislation if that’s required in writing them into the building regulations. The last panel we had was the fire testing and building control panel. This was really fascinating because we had senior members of building control on the panel. We also had the London Fire Brigade listening in, as they are really keen to learn. The STA is bringing all of these stakeholders together. I also think that getting younger people involved is important as well, because we find that they are just as interested in this as the current generation and, the more we teach them, they can take that enthusiasm on and hopefully we’ll be in a lot better position in 10 years’ time, in terms of our learnings and best practice.
What are the positive in using mass timber?
Certainly how sustainable it is as a material is very interesting. It is one of the most sustainable materials that are available in terms of embodied carbon, but it’s not just about embodied carbon. It’s also about health and wellbeing. It is no surprise that some of the first mass timber projects that were built, in the UK, were schools and academies and they were factoring in the health and wellbeing benefits. Now we’re starting to see it find its way into offices and residential and I think that, certainly, the sustainability aspects of mass timber is its greatest opportunity. We’re also living in a pandemic, hopefully post-pandemic world and there’s never been a greater opportunity to adopt offsite manufacture, something that the government has been pushing forward for many years. Hopefully if there is some small benefits from what we’ve been going through for the last 6-12 months, it’s the utilisation of offsite manufacture. Mass timber, structural timber, is exactly that, in it is built in a factory safe environment, where everything is controlled and everything is carefully considered. I think this is the big story and so should be part of why people choose mass timber.
What do you think the future is for mass timber?
I think the future is bright. I don’t think we’re going to build all of our buildings using mass timber, I think we have to be realistic about that. I think we’re going to be cycling to work one day, or cycling through parts of the UK and we’re going to see lots of mass timber buildings going up and I think people will remark that that’s something they haven’t seen before. I think perhaps in 10-15 years’ time we will see them being a lot more commonplace, so again I would say, it’s not if, it’s when. I think it’s a pretty exciting and we should design timber buildings in the right place. It’s an exciting future.