Timber Rising – ROCA London Gallery

Timber Rising – ROCA London Gallery

Running from 9thFebruary to 19thMay at the design-focused Roca London Gallery, Timber Rising: Vertical Visions for the Cities of Tomorrow presents an intriguing glimpse into the future of architectural timber solutions through in-depth talks with industry-leading experts throughout the public exhibition.

Naturally, each of the panels discussions focus on a slightly different topic: so far looking at ‘Forests and Sustainable Cities’ and ‘A Revolution in Construction: Hand in Hand with Nature’. The latter, for which we were in attendance, posed the very important question: ‘Can the use of natural materials to build our cities help safeguard people from the effects of climate change, increased pollution, alienation and mental health issues?’.

Speaking about mental health at an architecture and design focused event seemed odd at first but the panelists soon made the case for its inclusion: “People who live around and in the midst of nature – within warm, timber structures”, Dr. Layla McCay of the Centre of Urban Design and Mental Health told the audience, “are far more likely to be happier in their day to day lives than those surrounded by cold, hard concrete”. Kevin Flanagan (PLP Architecture) states that: “There is evidence in Scandinavia that people recuperating in hospitals with engineered timber walls recovered 20 per cent faster than those in other hospitals… I think it has to do with emotional associations too: apparently peoples heart rates go down!”

Clearly these statements must hold a great degree of salient truth. Each of the panelists – also including Michael Ramage (Centre for Natural Material Innovation at The University of Cambridge) and Elina Grigoriou (Grigoriou Interiors Ltd) – have utilised cross laminated timber (CLT) extensively in their latest projects and research, perfectly summarised in a Dezeen articleby Clare Farrow, the exhibition’s curator: “If urban densification is inevitable, then let it be done with a material that makes us happy”.


The Timber Revolution – Urban Practicality vs. Aesthetic Beauty

Writing of the harsh reality of urban densification and of the need to build upwards, Farrow suggests a real issue: “New luxury towers built of concrete, steel and glass present exciting and symbolic visions of this future, a penetration of the clouds, but there is also a flip-side. The problem is that cities already account for 75 per cent of global pollution and consumption of non-renewable resources. In the UK for example, the energy consumed in the construction and operation of the built environment accounts for almost half of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions”.

Of course, timber can offer a direct solution to this problem. Its carbon credentials are unparalleled; it is five times lighter than concrete; and its thermal properties make it an ideal material for both interiors and exteriors.

Kevin Flanagan, Partner at PLP Architects, is just one of the many who have recognised the outstanding potential that timber has to offer and has designed a conceptual timber skyscraper at London’s Barbican, originally intended to be provocative, testing both public and media reactions. However, the potential for timber construction extends far beyond a competition in height: “Timber is very light and extremely easy to manoeuvre because of this. Structures can be built inside a factory and then shipped to site in ready-to-assemble components, meaning a much shorter build time on-site”. However, due to its lightness, timber can also be used to add to existing structures, which is a rather fantastic thought in an era where overcrowding is becoming an issue. With these newfound vertical layering possibilities, architects may now add density to existing structures instead of requiring new land, a direct benefit of a recent building code provision that allows for greater soil load-bearing of old foundations once compacted.

Flanagan enthused: “Within the next five to ten years, it is extremely likely that there will actuallybe someone who wants to build one of these…Our clients are wanting a timber structure because it has a special appeal to the market that they are going after and, in this, the final look of a building can be very market-driven. In my mind, however, the exterior cladding is a very important feature. There’s actually something called Accoya which is a coated material in which the cellular character of the timber remains whilst the coating protects against water ingress and the other elements”.

Throughout the exhibition, quotes adorn the walls of Roca Gallery, in praise of timber and the progress it has made, but one in particular – from Michael Green of MGA (Michael Green Architecture) – truly resonated with the evenings’ conversation.

‘Buildings of late have become increasingly sculptural in form, largely driven by an aesthetic preference. In nature, beauty is driven by natural forces. In living organisms, beauty and form are not an accident but rather an evolutionary means to propagate and survive. The shape of a tree’s branch is not a rectilinear form, instead it has grown to satisfy the complex structural needs of supporting its leaves, managing wind and reaching for daylight. The branches’ fibres align and thicken where needed, they slim down where not. Buildings of the future will use these same principles to make forms driven by pure structural need, using less material while creative sculptural forms with true engineering meaning. Only then will architecture truly evolve’.

It would seem that architecture is now truly in the midst of such an evolution. As we heard in the panel discussion, it is true that increasingly more architects, interior designers and psychologists are recognising the potential and, indeed, the importance of this new – old – material, creating functional masterpieces all over the world that will allow people to live and work more freely and happily, and to experience the world through a different medium.

The Timber Revolution is here.