Timberbuild comes to the office

The structural use of timber in office, industrial and commercial building, as part of integrating ecologically sensitive sustainability into the work environment, could go a long way to humanising the work-spaces of the future. Here are three isolated examples in Britain, which begs the question as to why are there are so few precedents.

When do isolated instances of a building form turn into a trend? Not quite yet, it seems in the case of timberbuild office, commercial and administrative buildings in Britain at least. This despite the efforts of FeildenCleggBradley Architects to conjour renewed interest in this sector of the industry, a bread and butter staple to many mainstream practices. Did last years completion of two sizeable office and commercial projects – the National Trust Heelis HQ offices in Swindon, and Neals Yard Remedies, (a more fundamental timberbuild, brought about by the companies relocation of operations to Gillingham, Dorset, by the veteran sustainable architects) – signal possible winds of change or just as possible, business buildings as usual?

The Neals Yard Remedies building offers provocative food for thought for those drawn to the benefit and advantages of timber construction. Recently completed, it also underlines just how sparse construction of this building type in timber is, with few precedents to draw on. There are, potentially, a range of benefits. They can be divided into functional, or energy led; psychological and productivity led; or seen as the benefits to public image and identity that companies can derive from investing in such buildings.

A primary sustainable rationale is that timber structural systems are the most energy efficient construction technique in terms of embodied energy, compared to any other material. Whilst reluctant to rehearse the argument for Building for A Future readers, as most will be aware the amount of embodied energy which goes into producing timber for structural use is significantly less than steel, concrete or other materials. Steel and concrete are the failsafe competitors and comprise the standard structural materials in office buildings. Yet inescapably they make for much heavier energy and ecological footprints, which can be reduced by the introduction of timber construction.

A second argument dovetails with, or is subsumed within a wider and essentially psychological approach and is also closely linked to issues of well being. Well designed offices using natural materials, with natural lighting and heating – and space – feel good. Good, that is, compared to vast open plan air conditioned spaces filled to cramming with work-forces, often under fluorescent lighting, at times without natural light, an increasingly desktop technology-centred work environment, of in the main computers and phones. Now this isn’t primarily about structural use of timber as such, but repeatedly if anecdotally, the reports are of people liking being in a woody environment, being amidst wood, and this can include glue laminated beams. As Craig White from Bristol practice White-Design, says of his glulam build experience, no-one goes and strokes or feels steel columns. Feeling good affects  the productivity of work-forces; and more than one academic has made a career out of linking the quality of design and interior architecture to the efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation. And Sustainable buildings are much more likely to deliver on these counts. The title of Brian Edwards study of office buildings Green Buildings Pay1 tells its own story. Or consider the Guardian’s Jonathan Glancey in an article last year; ‘the state of your office tells you what your firm thinks of you,’ going on to add what the paradigm contemporary office design mimics above all, is the crammed call centre2.

A third timber-favourable argument is the showcase value of a considered sustainable building. This is the inverse of Glancey’s point, sending the message that the company does care. A point conveyed in the recent European overview of the field, Timber Construction for Trade, Industry and Administration by Wolfgang Ruske. Acknowledging that many industrial buildings are little more than ‘luridly coloured excrement’ the introduction explores how a small number of companies have taken a pro-active interest in using buildings as part of their identity; to convey both the company’s business philosophy and its overall identity, as well as drawing attention to the quality of its products3.  Within the books pages twenty three projects from all around the developed world are high-lighted, thirteen from the German speaking countries – Austria, Switzerland and Germany itself – though also North America and Japan, but dispiritingly, not Britain. This is prefaced by a brief discussion of various timber construction methods and discussion of the relative merits of differing materials. While not all the projects are by any means primarily sustainable, many are, and the thrust of the book is clear: timber constructed buildings make much more sustainable buildings than others.

A couple of months ago while being shown round the NT’s Heelis, my guide pointed out that any desk on its two floors was lit by natural sunlight. This came across as intelligent and smart design. Yet a few weeks later it was the Neals Yard Remedies site, an architecturally less ambitious build, but more adventurous overall project, which was feeding my imagination with all sorts of further ‘what ifs’.

As Ben Bamber reported in BFF Vol 15, no 3, Neals Yard Remedies are the complementary creams and health company, which started life in the hippy mini citadel of Neals Yard, Covent Garden some twenty-five years ago. Growing rapidly over the intervening period, encouraged by the boom in alternative medicinal and healthcare products, the need for a new centre of operations became pressing; and grabbing the nettle of relocation, the company decided to head to similarly fast growing Gillingham. FCB’s resulting design joins the administration to the storage buildings via a bridging canteen space. While visually understated what is of structural interest is that the whole of admin and canteen area is a timber construction – the first I can find in Britain in this building type for six years. The company wanted to convey its strong sustainable ethos, and what I found so potentially exciting in addition to the timber frame system was a sustainable building being integrated into the wider philosophy of the company: the adjoining land will grow some of the products as well as providing for other work needs. As project architect Alex Morris says, it’s a cross between an office and a farm.

First off though, a glulam post and beam system runs throughout the admin and refectory area. To supplement the application of wood, a sandwich construction system, using SIPS panels sits between the frame members, with insulation foam blown in before hardening, both reducing the number of frame members and bracing the frame. Neals Yard initially also wanted the much taller storage and manufacture building to be a timberframe construction. This would have involved 12 metre glulam columns and 1 metre deep beams. Technically do-able, such scale turned out to beyond the financial pockets of the company, who reverted to steel in the consequent cost cutting exercise. In a study, which he carried out while working on the building, Morris compared a variety of wood types with a variety of metals4. Tabulating these, Morris was able to quantify low, high and average kilowatt hours embodied energy and compare the building frame embodied energy in both steel and timber. For a glulam frame the low embodied energy was estimated between 82,000 kwh, and 360,000 kwh, while for a steel frame the low embodied energy was 353,000 kwh and the high 866,000 kwh. So in both cases the glulam used significantly lower embodied energy. Anenergy use estimation once the building was occupied, came in at 79 kwh per sq metre for heating and water. Extrapolating this to the buildings main energy uses, Morris concluded that 194,000 kwh, or between the first one and a half and two and a half years, of the buildings energy use had been sliced off through the reduced embodied energy footprint glulam allowed. This is with glulam imported from Germany, rather than timber sourced much closer to the building. While the mainstream architectural and engineering world’s main focus is on energy use reduction once buildings are up and running, such buildings and studies demonstrate the embodied energy advantages of using timber structurally.  This would also improve were the engineered timber industry to grow. At present, compared to steel the industry’s small size means it finds it difficult to offer competitive tender prices. As it is, the engineered timber companies vary in tender costs depending on how busy companies are. These and other factors do militate against timber breaking into the office building market, although this hasn’t stopped FCB pushing it as a building approach they would very much like to develop further.

If their new building is made primarily of wood, the core material to the whole Neals Yard Remedies business are plants, those smaller cousins to trees in the vegetable realm. Situated in field at the edge of Gillingham, the company are relocating their herb garden from nearby Fontnell Magna, part of the field is gradually being turned into an orchard. Not only this, but to the side of the building an employees vegetable garden is in the early stages of planting, with staff all offered garden time. Other features, including an avenue of Gingko trees line the entrance.

What Neals Yard Remedies appear to be doing, is a form of integrating timber construction with a variety of other parts of the plant world; linking the ecosystems, and helping to complete the circle as it were, rather than a timberbuild project isolated from the surrounding ecology. Not only this but a field of allotments, herb gardens and orchards is perhaps one pathway exemplar for how mainstream offices might be designed, even, in the near future. You can’t see it yet, full growth is a few seasons away, and at present elements of the three piece building can feel incongruous in the flat Dorset valley countryside. But it felt like a genuinely intriguing experiment, marrying timberbuild to the seasons. Only the interzone was missing: plants on the inside, either for growing: be it flowers, fruit or vegetables, or as additional quiet contributors to the workings of the building; spider plants, helping with ventilation for instance. The staff seemed to be wholly into their new environment. As I left near to the end of a working day, a girl was also leaving. “It’s a great space to work,” she said after enquiring what I was writing about.

The Neals Yard Remedies building is the latest in the somewhat woefully short list of office and commercial buildings in this country which apply timber structurally. The first recent example I can trace is in midlands Kettering. There, the young Bristol based White-Design practice was given an early break soon after setting up in 1998. Through a chance referral, Craig White was recommended as a low energy specialist architect to the Danish natural light and ventilation company, Velux. Velux wanted to build a demonstration showcase. The brief was fourfold. Use Velux products in the building, demonstrating use beyond domestic attics and lofts, while doubling as their UK headquarters and maintaining a pronounced Scandinavian aesthetic and identity. Which in effect meant wood. White-Design undertook a feasibility plan, thinking they were too inexperienced to get invited back. But they were, and after a series of further tendering hoops were offered the project.

The solution which won White and colleagues the tender, makes much of designing by section, rather than plan. White describes the build as in effect a contemporary barn. Held up by nine initially vertical glulam posts, before flying over and turning into near horizontal beams, which extend out above the far roof face. This face slopes down steeply to near ground level on the building’s far side. In the space between the two faces, skylight windows bathe the office within natural daylight. The glulam is left exposed both internally and externally, dividing the interior into eight discreet bays; while the final ninth beam stands outside fully visible, creating a dramatic shelter at the back end of the building, as well as providing the external fire escape space. Velux photovoltaic windows are used, and other various core sustainable elements are integrated including concrete thermal mass, as well as timber studwork walls.

White describes the building as Velux mark I, which encapsulates a whole approach. Economic at the time of Velux I – £1050 per cubic metres – in the years since the practice have developed this approach a further five iterations. These have included a redesigned version has been entered into competitions, including what looks from the competition drawings like a striking application for Sittingbourne, Kent, Civic Centre. More recently what is described as Velux mark II, has been developed as an office model template with contractors Willmott Dixon, one version which may see the light of day for European Velux centre, and another which is on course to be realised for a new building for Edinburgh based company, Ecosse Regeneration.

Another example, again a showcase, is the Eden Project’s Foundation Building completed in 2000. The 6 by 14 metre box has two floors, designed around a central staircase. Ten propped glulam Whitewood beams make up the lightweight column based post and beam timber frame adapted to the box build, with these beams exposed, except in parts of the ground floor. They are also bolted to concrete pads on a raised timber floor. A series of OSB and softwood Truss Joists sit between the posts, with 600mm centres. Although the softwood beam system was milled to slender dimensions for what Grimshaws call aesthetic reasons, something of the feel of a fully timber building has been lost with the building wrapped with an aluminium cladding system, even if these also support a timber-decked terrace to the front entrance side of the building. Again this building is naturally lit and ventilated.

Discussions with various professionals in the timber architecture, carpentry, engineering and marketing world didn’t produce any further examples; most referred to the Neals Yard building as the only office structure they knew of which fitted the office/industrial description. And in email correspondence with Jonathan Shanks, who recently researched the building type as an internal assessment for Buro Happold’s timber engineering department, Shanks was pretty categorical that he, similarly, had come across no other precedents for timber constructed office and commercial buildings in the country.

In Europe, and particularly timber producing areas of Germany, Austria and Switzerland the story is markedly different. One striking example in the Ruske’s Timber Construction book is a zero emissions factory in Brunswick, Germany by Banz and Riecks Architects5. Unsurprisingly, the firm, which manufactures solar energy systems, had a company interest in developing the factory. The timber construction covers production, storage and admin areas where glulam is used, with two wide 27.5 metre open span structures.

There are also examples across the Nordic countries, although these are not as prolific as might be expected, given the close identification of timber building with the forested north. In fact, in Finland, it was only in the last year that the first  timber built offices were completed. METLA, the Finnish Forest Research organisation, opened their showcase offices, which apply the increasingly popular solid wood techniques in Joensuu6, to the far east of the country. And in the summer 2005 Finnforest were to open its FMO Tapiola office where, as with the Velux building, the building acts as an advertisment for the occupiers’. In this case Finnforests products including modular prefabricated Kerto LVL columns and beams. Whether the prefabricated Kerto remains exposed in the buildings design doesn’t come across on the website6.

What do these examples tell us about the prospects of timber construction becoming more common-place in the office and commercial build environment? Given that in each instance the organisations who have stumped up the money for these buildings have a direct commercial interest in doing so, its wider application could well be quite far off. Craig White argues that encouraging the embodied energy agenda is the next stage in any more thorough going greening of mainstream sustainable architecture. The need for further exemplars, familiarity in the mainstream professions, as well as an engineered timber industry sizeable enough to compete with steel – including the regrowth of homegrown glulam producers – are also contributory preconditions to stimulate change. Putting aside the perspective of whether there ought to be any offices in the first place, triggered by utopian dreamings, a humanising of office space, through ecologically sensitive sustainability, feels to my mind the most hopeful option for the future of modern industrial, and commercial buildings. Whether and when this happens to any viable and visible degree is another matter.

2005 – Originally published in Building for a Future

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