A Post-Local timber evening – Pioneering the Potential 2021

(Friday September 10th, StudioHardie, Lewes, Sussex)

Fourth Door’s first post-Covid live event, the Pioneering the Potential 2021 evening, felt like dipping a toe back into the fast flowing media of live events after a long, long time. Held on a Friday in mid-September (also the first evening of the Phoenix Design Festival) a full house listened to primarily local Sussex timber experts exploring and explaining their projects in the atmospheric environment of the Studio Hardie workshop. Along with the live in the body presentations there were two Zoom presentations, one from Devon and the other live and direct from Northern Switzerland.

The evening was also the first Pioneering the Potential since its successful first year Wood+ event in 2019, (its second year fell foul of 2020’s Covid chaos.)

Kicking off the evening independent wood designer and researcher Nick Meech and London Metropolitan University’s George Fereday told an audience, of mixed youthful and older faces, about their HomeGrown House research work to develop prototypes out of the Sweet Chestnut which grows prolifically across the eastern corner of the South East (for a  video of their talk see here.)

HomeGrown House, Fereday and Meech told the audience has completed two phases and is on to its third. Much of the outdoor research has been happening in the coppiced sweet chestnut landscape of Badgells Wood, Kent, with the aim of reinvigorating, in Fereday’s words, “a local woodland economy through design with this quite underused material.” The research exercise began by developing a ‘kit of parts’ across a spectrum of scales of sweet chestnut coppice, from which various prototype timber materials and early-stage possible designs emerged, including the thought provokingly titled XR beam. The designs were then modelled by collaborating engineers, and a set of designs, which Meech enthusiastically reported felt, “aesthetically incredibly pleasing,” and have since been visualised in renders. The result so far is an appealing mix of super low tech and low impact approaches fused with, where needed, high tech input. By the close, Fereday’s and Meech’s warmly received talk felt like the early stages in a path where with quite a way to yet unfold. A case of – hopefully – watch this space.

Sweet chestnut is after all, a predominant wood in South-East’s clayey Weald. With 19, 000 hectares of trees. and an annual excess of timber of half a million tonnes a year, so that each year the core tree capital grows another 100,000 tonnes of potential timber to work with, without beginning to affect the existing reserve of core woodlands.

Meech and Fereday were followed by a late addition to the speakers list, Bill Maynard. With Lewes’s Phoenix industrial estate’s new developers, Human Nature, talking of committing to building as much of the project out of locally sourced timber, Maynard has been tasked by the Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre to work on preparing supply chains for what could be a turning point in the region’s use of its woods for sustainable construction. As he outlined his plans – watch the video of his talk here – Maynard also posed a challenge for the audience; Forestry Commission’s figures suggest there are 100, 000 hectares plus of productive woodland stretched across the South-East. How many hectares, he asked, would be needed for the 600 plus units currently in the mix for the Phoenix eco-development? (For the answer check the bottom of the page.)

PtP2021’s first virtual guest was next up. In another change from the advertised programme, Jez Ralph, who runs the specialist consultancy Timber Strategies and often teams up with Lantern’s Amy Hammond. For the PtP evening Ralph had been drafted in by Hammond to give a wider ranging overview, one which turned out to be a thoroughly thought-provoking dip into the possibilities and potential of urban and roadside wood waste as recyclable and re-usable materials (Ralph’s Zoom video here.)

HomeGrown House XR Beam – Photo: Stephen Blunt,
London Metropolitan University.

George Fereday and Nick Meech and their XR beam

Cutting the trunks of coppiced Sweet chestnut – Photo David Saunders

The Ekkharthof restaurant’s engineered ash post and beam system  – Photo Lukas Peters

Felled ash tree trunks due to Chalara ash dieback or ash Chalara disease

Imhof’s Wimm furniture
– Photo Lukas Peters

Jez Ralph was immediately followed by Lukas Imhof, the evening’s international guest zooming in from Northern St Gallen region of Switzerland. Imhof – or more accurately Lukas Imhof Arkitekten – recently completed their Ekkharthof timber restaurant and community building. While the indigenous use of Swiss timber has been growing – see the new Annular Unstructured edition on Swiss timber materials, engineering and architecture –  the Ekkharthof project’s use of engineered ash for the structural body of the building provides a striking example of what can be done with ash hardwood. Imhof was invited to talk about his timber showcase to underline the potential of the wood in local construction given the widespread culling of ash across the South East, due to ash chalara dieback disease (hymenoscyphus fraxineus.)

At present the overwhelming majority of low value waste-wood in the South East – 174,000 ha (450,000 acres) – goes to the Estover run Sandwich Combined Heating Power (CHP) plant on the Thames estuary, Kent, as biomass to be burnt. This part of the evenings two presentations from Ralph and Imhof sought to illustrate the longer-term carbon sequestration potential of using low grade wastewood in design and construction, with a focus on the prolific amounts of diseased ash, compared to the increasingly contentious – at least on the continent – use as bioenergy and biomass heating and power.

Imhof was speaking from the Ekkharthof building and proceeded to walk the audience round the building – see the video of Imhof’s talk and walk here – showing both interior, including a further fruit of the project, ash used on specially designed chairs and furniture by Imhof, which evolved into Wimm, a joint social design company with the Ekkharthof community. Together with Ralph, Imhof’s presentation provided provocative food for thought regarding alternative uses for wastewood, not least ash being cut down along roadsides and from hedges, before being taken away for burning – the new Annular Unstructured features a piece about Imhof’s Ekkharthof project here.

After a brief intermission during which the audience refuelled on various beverages and snacks, alcoholic or otherwise, kindly organised by the Studio Hardie team, the two final speakers rounded off the evening highlighting two live and local timber building projects.

Penny Jones and David Saunders are long term Lewes residents who have been quietly influential across the South East’s wood culture networks. Saunders, with a life-times experience as a professional forester, has been the main spirit and driving force behind the realisation of the pioneering Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre. Set in 20 hectares of mixed deciduous, conifer and coppiced woodland, the centre has been instrumental in introducing local timber species, particularly Sweet chestnut, as sustainable construction materials. Jones has worked for many years across arts education, particularly in projects related to the environment and the natural world. Together they also own and manage their own woodland, Foxwood on the edge of small east Sussex town of Framfield. Penny Jones began by retelling the story of Foxwood Forestry, their arts and education organisation, and how it has helped and participated in local art projects, including providing all the for the thinnings for the recent Olafur Eliasson installation, the Forked Forest Path, at Brighton’s Fabrica gallery earlier this year.

Over the last two years the couple have been working towards creating their own arts education centre within Foxwood. At the heart of this is a novel hybrid cruck frame and sling brace building, which is currently nearing completion. Saunders picked up the story, explaining how in 1987, after that years’ historic storm flattened so many trees and woodlands across Southern England, there were many ‘swept’ larch trees, bent sideways by the force of the storm, which subsequently began to right themselves and grow upwards again. Unable to be milled or used commercially, Saunders began thinking about how these still relatively strong trunks might still be used in a building. He came up with the idea that they could make for effective cruck ‘blades’ and sling braces.

In discussion with fellow Lewes resident and master timber framer, John Russell, a design was developed to encompass both types of beams. Although delayed, the frame went up over summer 2021, as Saunders illustrated through the power-point of the presentation. The solution, although unusual, appears to have worked well. Jones and Saunders are now working to complete their Foxwood educational barn.

The final talk was about another, albeit rather different Sussex timber development, one which looks garner quite a bit of attention and is set to chime with the times and current wave of interest in woods, trees and timber construction – Flimwell Park. This isn’t only a major timber project for Sussex, but is also again in Flimwell, a stone’s throw from the Flimwell WEC.

The Barn’s frame nearing completion – Photo Foxwood Forestry

Laid out – the timbers in John Russell’s workshop  – Photo Tom Saunders

The curvy thinnings, growing, in preparation and laid out on the Penny Jones and David Saunders woodland site – Photos: Foxwood Forestry

David Saunders explaining the finer points about Foxwood Forestry
art-ed barn – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Flimwell Park – Photo Roland de Villiers/Shootlab (also next two photos of Flimwell Park below)

Steve Johnson – Photo Oliver Lowenstein

Both architect, Steve Johnson, and the developer Chris ‘O Callaghan were meant to talk, but after a late phone call from the O’Callaghan office apologising for their man’s no show, Johnson was left to round off the evening’s presentations alone. Johnson, an American émigré from Minneapolis, Wisconsin, if long domiciled in central London, provided a characteristically upbeat overview and assessment of the project. He told the story of how the O ‘Callaghan family’s personal and passion project had been seeded in response to the local council planning committee’s rejection of earlier plans, before following on with its construction and completion on the edge of the East Sussex/Kent border.

A substantial development, Flimwell Park scale became clear as Johnson walked the audience through photos of the site, comprises eight ‘artisan workshops’, a just opened gallery/café restaurant, student chalets for educational and training, three private homes and what’s described as a ‘focal building,’ a workshop, which is beginning to be used by the London Bartlett School of Architecture faculty and students on wood and forest related projects.

For Johnson, who has been involved in Sussex based projects since the turn of the millennium, including project architect of the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Gridshell building, and phases 2 and 3 at Flimwell WEC, Flimwell Park is the next chapter in the wider local timber story.  The project uses a mix of locally and regionally sourced timber – including Douglas fir and larch sourced from Southern England – and imported Estonian glulam timber and SIP cassette panels.

Johnson, who is now working on the Lewes Phoenix project as the developer’s principal timber consultant, seemed convinced that change was in the air, and moving in timber’s direction. He did note challenges though, not least the announcement earlier in the week by the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, that the capital’s building regulations are to ban timber in many building types, as part of the post-Grenfell flammable material legislation. Where London leads, Johnson noted, the rest of the country generally follows.

Despite the words of warning, both project and evening were greeted by a now somewhat thinned out audience as proof positive that at the local Sussex level the region’s timber scene is entering a dynamic and interesting period, underscoring how, in as the 21st century’s second decade limbers up, timber’s time is very much here and present.

Oh yes, that number –  at the end of his talk Bill Maynard let us in on his calculations that 75 hectares are what would be needed for the six hundred plus timber units on the Phoenix development!!

Thank you to all the speakers, to funding support from Lewes District Council, Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre and Human Nature, to Studio Hardie, to Roland de Villiers, and to Sam Jenner and Zuky and Karma Serper for help with running the evening.

Flimwell Park past dusk – Photo: Steve Johnson

Studio Hardie wall – Photo – Oliver Lowenstein