All in the frame: the twenty-first-century timber office

With sustainability on the agenda for some in the commercial sector, how far can this be taken in transforming twenty-first century offices environments. Page\Park’s Loch Lomond Park new HQ s integrates the largest greenwood timber frame yet constructed in the UK, providing a textbook example of what is possible.

Things seem to be afoot in the greening of the UK’s industrial newbuild sector, at least if showcases are anything to go by. Chetwoods Architects have just signed up to realise an ambitious £50 million design of a vast business park, the Chatterley Valley Blue Planet, in Staffordshire; London practice Hamilton Associates recently completed a ground breaking naturally ventilated office in Luton; and, from Devon to Brighton to the Midlands, numerous eco-industrial parks keep on mushrooming around the country. Alongside these projects, the timberbuild field is continuing to pull in an increasing number of sustainable office projects. White-Design, who completed their showcase Velux office in Kettering a few years ago have been given the green light for another timber flagship office; this time at the Heartlands Business Park in Whitburn, West Lothian, Scotland. Finally there is the ambitious, if individually smaller-scaled cruck-framed office building project at the Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre in East Sussex.

While this is all very well, for some it isn’t enough. Come spring the small Scottish town of Balloch will have one of the more stylish, beautifully realised office buildings sitting in its midst. This is the new £5 million Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority office head-quarters, an elegant twinned roof-build snaking its way around the contour of a roundabout in Balloch’s quiet town-centre, using long, tall Douglas fir greenwood for the largest post and beam frames completed in the current generation of Scottish timberbuild projects. Along with its timber frame the HQ is seen by some, as the latest example of a revolution in office design, and much more holistic and integrated in its thinking. In the Scottish context; the Loch Lomond office can be seen as the next episode to the Scottish Natural Heritage‘s Inverness building from last year, interpretable as the latest stage in redefining the nature of office building; a redefinition with sustainability at its heart. Well placed at the southern edges of dramatic Loch Lomond, Balloch is only a forty-minute train journey west from Glasgow’s city centre. The administration centre for the Loch Lomond park, one of Scotland’s two newly created national parks, was already based in temporary modular offices at the town’s old station, making it an obvious choice when the business case was being developed for the new showcase headquarters to be built in the town. The resulting massive total budget, £9 million was procured through the ‘Design, Develop & Construct’ funding pathway. Although this included the purchase of land, the amount seems to suggest the projects symbolic importance for the Scottish Assembly. Part of the case for the building is that the national park extends many miles, primarily northwards, covering an area of around 720 sq miles, required a central hub for the sizeable staff number needed for such a large area. The open plan HQ accommodates a head count of 120.

the Balloch foyer entrance
the Balloch foyer entrance

The day I visited the building late last year, the National Park Authority’s HQ glinted in the November sunlight, belying the sombre stone which forms much of its roadside facade gently curving round the allocated land edge and the roundabout at the southern end of the sites boundary. Of the five practices who submitted plans to the limited competition, Page\Park’s was the only entry, which really used the roundabout as a design tool; the inspiration for the organically shaped curve of their building. Theirs was also the only practice whose design concept explored the use of structural timber, a point not lost on, amongst others, Carron Tobin, the National Park Authority’s director. “With 30% of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park being forest we wanted a sustainable building that used Scottish timber. The question was how to take that forward,” she says now. “Page\Park understood this, and also seemed to have a realistic approach to working with capital costs. We had a shopping list of sustainable build features, and ideas about space planning, hot-desking and community use of the building. They were able to work with all these and balance them within our fixed budget. The form you see today goes back to when David Page (one half of Page\Park founding partners) did one of his classic thumb nail sketches at the interview.”

Today, that sketch – two felt squiggles,  made physical covers 1500 sq metres – manifests itself as a double building structure, a device enabling the central glazed ‘street.’ Standing in the car park in front of the building, my first impression is of two large, semi-conventional sheds, almost oversize in scale, harking back to a kind of industrial Victoriania, but then taken to a completely new twenty-first century level; the elegant curve, the timber cladding, slate roof, the buildings south facing stone walls and the imposing and open foyer canopy space at the entrance. As an environmental showcase the building ticks the usual boxes; including a biomass primary heating system, a mix of natural and minimal mechanical ventilation (for an automated venting system), and a SUDs reed bed.

The significant news, sustainability and timberbuild wise, however, is that this is the largest greenwood timberframe project so far attempted in the UK. The Douglas fir timber frame is 78 metres long and 20 metres wide, comprising 26 separate post and beam sections. Realising this was complicated both in terms of procurement, but also in terms of providing an column-less space for the second storey open plan work area. That was the biggest challenge, says Neil Daley from the Glasgow office of the building’s structural engineers, Buro Happold, “trying to create that open space in a timber building. For Page & Park, covering the open space was only part of the challenge.  Loch Lomond’s project architect Karen Pickering, claims it was as much about creating a structure that set new standards for office buildings. And David Page talks of it as the latest representative of a new model or paradigm in office building. “It’s a reaction to the ubiquitous office stuff being pumped out, towards warmer and more human, healthy well-being buildings that take off the rough sharp edges, and soften the environment. That don’t want to be hard – which isn’t to say you can’t do sharper buildings – but that do work within the wider context of humanising, of organising and management.” Page believes this is an emerging trend, where sustainable issues: timber’s tacit warmth, natural lighting and mixed ventilation dovetail with new approaches to spatial and interior design, new thinking in organisation theory. The beginnings of this process began, Daley recalls, with design team and clients looking at a number of office buildings they liked, “including our own Glasgow office”, with the aim of integrating some characteristics of their favourites. Not surprisingly a visit was made to FCBStudio’s National Trust Heelis building in Swindon, which, although not timber frame, shares much of the same sympathetically well-lit open working environment. The Victorian shed theme is also reminiscent of Heelis’s engine shed update. They too headed north to Scottish Natural Heritage’s recent Westercraigs Great Glen House building on the edge of Inverness, designed by Keppies Design, with its showcase timber foyer atrium and its highest BREEAM environmental building rating win2. This example helped in the decision process. In addition new thinking is also present in the agency’s inclusion agenda; with parts of the building available for the community out of hours and at weekends, including state of the art video and audio suite facilities. Page is quoted as stating in an early PR release that the building embodies “new attitudes to materials, form; and functions as an administrative centre, information point and meeting focus for the community – in all a new front door to the park.”

Fusing wood’s natural warm materiality to another core ingredient of this palette of new thinking – the need for the flexible wide-span circulation and work-space – determined the actual structural form of the timber frame. Much of the twenty-six strong timber-frame system, in all comprised of 315 pieces of Douglas fir, has disappeared behind the render in the load-bearing external walls. These help to carry the second floors and extend the roof span right across the open work-space. Along the street, however – the central corridor running through the building from the foyer’s canopy entrance – the post and beam system is fully exposed and expressed with the 300 by 650cm Douglas fir posts rising up to the roof and showing just how sizeable they are; in effect entire tree trunks some thirteen metres (6.5m) in height. They also provide much of the roof span support for the open ground floor street and its two further glazed ground floor open atria spaces of library and restaurant respectively. Here some 82 Douglas glulam beams have been applied to the frame structure, where the design couldn’t accommodate the shrinkage of natural timber. Between and to each side of the library and restaurant spaces, are further smaller cellular rooms with narrow slit windows, to reduce solar glare for break out meetings. It is the timber frame, which is arguably the most impressive part of the structure. The heavy graft for this, according to COWCo’s Scott Fotheringham was down to BuroHappold. “A hell of a lot of design work went into the engineering,” he says not entirely surprisingly, given the architectural requirement for clear open space in the upper structure.

Solving how the loadings would be distributed through the building structure was the engineering teams’ central challenge. The architects, engineers and carpenters worked together to develop a design solution, with COWCo being invited to be part of the design team in early 2006 when the initial plan being proposed was completely different. Subsequently the building went through several iterations. One of the earliest design versions was for the upper floor structure and structural walls to be made from sitka sourced Stress Laminated Timber (SLT), a structural concept which Edinburgh’s Centre for Timber Engineering contributed. The sitka was chosen as it is available locally in the National Park. This approach normally used for the construction of bridges couldn’t be made to work internally, due to the issues caused by shrinkage affecting fire integrity, and resulted in a rethink of the timber structure. The spruce/OSB box and ply composite floor, and the ply/spruce composite loadbearing was the result, bringing stability to the sheer walls and the beginning of a solution for both wall and floors, enabling the heavy loads to be transferred through the Douglas fir frame to make the design and engineering viable.

Page\Park’s design, notes Fotheringham, was for a clear uninterrupted open space, the engineers working with a lean, minimal and elegantly scaled frame, yet one which held the roof quite well enough if the loads could be made to work.

Working together Happold’s Daley and COWCo the bespoke box system was developed further, acting as a diaphragm and effectively transferring the load from the buildings north to the south side. The box system, which also involved Gordon Cowley, is similar to a joist system consisting of wide spruce top and bottom flanges, with a double spruce OSB web. The webs need not be continuous, only where the loads require, making the beams light and easy to handle on site, while providing clear ways for the running of services within the floor structure. The stability and sheer walls proved a challenge to provide stability in a largely open plan building. Ply-clad stud walls weren’t sufficient in some areas of the structure. By using plywood as a central web with spruce flanges and stiffeners, a cost effective timber solution was achieved.

The development of the frame jointing was also important, special steel flitch plates, again developed by the Happold-COWCo team in association with SKM Anthony Hunt. Daley reminds me of how much of the engineering challenge is in the connectors, and he says that timber pegs could have been used, and may become part of any next such greenwood timber frame. As for the wood itself, the Douglas fir came from the Borders, mainly the south of Scotland and Cumbria. Eight oak posts, sourced locally to Cowco’s Lintrathen yard, are used at the main entrance, given the foyer areas exposure to the elements, with the Douglas fir glulam beams sourced from France. Fotheringham is clearly pleased with the building.˜Architecturally it’s a one-off since it integrates many different types of timber structures into the timber frame,’ he says.

Today, weeks before its launch, David Page talks about the buildings, asking rhetorically; “Does it work? We’re very hopeful,” he adds, answering his question. “We know we can build it, and it went up like a dream, but we also know there were hidden costs in there.” Of these, the timber costs aren’t negligible. According to Pickering the decision to go with the Douglas fir timber frame contributed a hefty extra £1 million or 20% of the total £5 million budget.  For Page & Park and all involved though, it sounds like invaluable experience. Although the practice have completed several timber frames, including a variety emphasising sustainability, Pickering believes Loch Lomond has taken this aspect of the practices work to another stage, particularly since they hadn’t worked with green timber before. ˜What’s been good about this project, comments Pickering, ˜was the budget.” Decision-wise the client’s turning point to commit to a greenwood frame seems to have happened after visiting RMJM’s Lauder College ECOspace in the Eastern town of Fife. This recent COWCo greenwood timberframe that convinced the Loch Lomond authorities that the considerable extra investment made sense. Their eyes opened by Lauder College they ticked the box for Douglas fir. By contrast, the car park, or rear face of the building, is clad in Scottish larch, and the roof tiled “on both sides“ with North English Burlington slates.

The roadside and roundabout south facing facade is also stone, again from the Burlington quarry, adding a Scottish sobriety to the buildings public face. Previously Page & Park had used the Scottish Aberfoyle quarry for stone on a previous project, Rodeenon, but the quarry is nearly exhausted these days, resulting in the North England Burlington Quarry order. Across South Western Scotland, traditionally the dark grey stone has been applied to walling“ and Page & Park’s building sits opposite to one of the entrances to the Authorities parkland, walled in just such a stone marking the boundary of the land, across the road. The buildings curve is intended to reinforce the sense of community, the public aspect to the building, Page explains again how the shape coming from the roundabout emerged from the felt tip sketch. “It was a very simple diagram as a shape and it offered an intuitive response to site, with the urban benefit of accompanying the pedestrian around the roundabout.” From this, the reassuring, warm sensibility of the rest of the building seems to follow easily. The steep slated roof, with its retro-Victoriania overlay turns out to be entirely thought through. The roof’s volume was determined by its capacity to hold and effectively disperse the buildings warm hot air. This, Page points out, is almost Victorian era engineering. “It kind of goes back to Victorian pre-mechanised volumes which are then supplemented by mechanical ventilation when necessary.” There’s an admiration to the distant era in his voice as he relates his fascination with how Victorian engineers understood the physics of volumes, yet did so without any recourse to electronic calculation. “They’re responsive environments that are not dictated by machines. We are absolutely wedded to technology, but the Victorians didn’t have the machines, and had to create form abstractly in their head. So Loch Lomond’s a hybrid of the two systems, fundamentally Victorian volumes, and twenty first century ventilation and lighting.” Page describes the Loch Lomond park authority as having been a “very brave client” taking a big step and a big risk. No, he says, there have not been other enquiries – yet, and “all we can do is each step. With each wave, we crash against the beach.” Page, whose sense of the poetic extends, somewhat unusually in his spatially-inflected discipline, to the realm of language, then adds that they need to “testify this sustainable timber building, to support our own ‘Scottish’ craft. There’s an embryonic industry here which threatens to become bigger. All we can do is keep pushing” to build up the timber industry. As to its relation with sustainability, Page elaborates on metaphor. “There’s so much noise out there, you can be fooled by randomness, you have to pick through the noise, listening to all the noise I get confused. It’s difficult to hear how substantial it is.” Amidst this, Page indicates his enthusiasm for the new fusion to office design that the building represents; the mix of sustainable, potentially natural materials and human oriented design. “Working communities rather than the traditional office block.” He cites influences such as the ‘pioneering’ seventies ˜environmental office buildings, Cullinan’s 1971 Olivetti offices in Haslemere is one, Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger’s Central de Beer office complex a year later another. He says, “my test will be ‘does it work, what’s the ambience, have we achieved what we set out to do? What organisations need are,” he adds, “developmental models which are not straight-jacketed, where organisations are given office-spaces completely dictated by fire and service provisions, car parks and the like. You need,” he concludes “non-standard organisations.” The Loch Lomond & Trossachs Park Authority, Page suggests, are just an organisation working from a different organisational model; and this is reflected in their new ‘flexible and bespoke’ building. If there are companies around who are increasingly receptive to this surprising fusion – based around the prospective work culture benefits that ensue from what Page calls ‘an oatmeal, healthy/well-being building’,“ then what we have is timberbuild integrated into a broader agenda.

The tacit, experiential qualities of wood used within office culture, and for the office workers health is a vivid contrast to the super-tower mega-office mentality. All well and good, but the question remains whether such one-offs can translate into something other than fringe exemplars. For sure, Loch Lomond is a brave experiment, it is a good-looking building – but the project has been cushioned by being funded from the public purse, not to mention the Scottish Executive requiring a showcase. Even if costs come down as a result of Loch Lomond and other pioneering buildings how many other timber-inflected high quality office environments will follow? “I would hope that others will be built,” was, as is often the case, the formula used by one of those involved in Loch Lomond when I put the question, but hope itself doesn’t really meet the level of need, that if the environmental crisis is real and not only noise washing in on every tide, then literally all office buildings need radical, negative or carbon-neutral levels of buildability. The optimist in me wants to believe that such a new model humanising the work-place is taking off. But the pessimist can’t help wonder about the proportion of office building embodying this new thinking, to actual office buildings going up each year. Putting aside the off-the-map remark of whether, evolutionarily, humans are destined to work in offices at all, will the private sector – who after all call the tune in commercial buildings – be persuaded of the long term benefits to the paradigm of a new office age?

A version of this piece appeared in Green Building magazine, spring 2008 (vol 17, no 4)

Leave a Comment