NEC BIRMINGHAM   08-10 OCTOBER 2019

In pursuit of excellence: Collaboration in the timber industry

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Overview:

Speaking at Timber Expo, a mixture of well-established and successful architects and engineers commented on the necessity of collaboration – both in honing and elevating current practices into something even better.

The Timber Focus Theatre at this year’s Timber Expo saw yet another collection of high-calibre speakers discuss, debate and brainstorm around beautiful buildings, durable timber design, multi-disciplinary working, and more. A recurring trend throughout was the importance of collaboration and cooperation, particularly in the design stage. During a time when the first stop in researching new products for specification is Google, according to Anthony Thistleton, it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain a truly up-to-date library of technical information – so how do we approach innovation in timber design right from the very start of the process?

Anthony Thistleton, Partner at Waugh Thistleton, shared, ‘working with CLT has meant that we have had to start working with the provider much earlier on in the scheme design than we would do with other materials, which has benefits to do with optimisation of the frame’.

He continued, adding that we should be specifying as a team, ‘when you consolidate the design team, so the actual product designers and the manufacturers are all in the same space, designing together, you get a holistic specification: you benefit from each other’s knowledge and you get something that works right down to the core of it’.

Paul Edwards, Associate at Arup, suggested that collaborating with erectors, fabricators and others early on can also streamline the design process, since systems are governed by certain key areas, such as the connections: ‘We know that the people likely to work on projects will have their own approach to specific solutions and we will move with that knowledge through the process. Once we’ve designed something sensible, we test that with certain trusted collaborators. This means that when we do go to market and our specifications are being responded to, we have a wealth of confidence that what we’re suggesting is both feasible and practical’. But he also warned that bringing in specific solutions too early on might narrow down or remove other options and possibilities for innovation that were otherwise available. He added, ‘if we could have a situation where we could maintain the “openness” which in theory a traditional procurement route allows … but at the same time bring in the level of detail, knowledge and expertise in certain areas where they can bring positive benefit then that would be great’.

Adrian Campbell, Director at Changebuilding, suggested offsite manufacturing design was a hot topic that wasn’t supported by the current procurement systems in place. ‘If I wandered into another one of the other halls [at UK Construction Week], I’m sure that someone would be talking about offsite manufacturing’, he shared, ‘but the procurement systems don’t really lend themselves very well to embedding manufacturers and suppliers really early on, upfront in the process. If we’re really going to get those advantages of understanding the total system, we need to change the methods of procurement as well. We can’t just keep banging about traditional procurement methods and saying let’s get all the value from the supply chain, because they haven’t got the opportunity to embed that in the design at the very early stages’.

Adrian also emphasised that incredible timber research was taking place in German universities and in universities across the world, but that as an industry we lacked access to it. He highlighted: ‘we need to be pulling information from academia and research back through industry into actual engineering design’.

But even with more information, products and systems out there, it’s clear that not everything is – and sometimes you need to ask for it. Anthony Thistleton told us, ‘we’re trying to move from passively specifying stuff that’s provided by others into actively interacting with the marketplace and saying, “we need this”, particularly when … there are solutions out there that we need the market to provide. I think we should be going out to them rather than waiting for someone to produce something’.

As Toby Jeavons, Associate Partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, put: ‘the architect is no longer the master of all elements of technology – and hasn’t been for a long time’. This is particularly so in timber design, which involves unique design considerations and increasingly innovative products. If, as an industry, we embrace academia, if the architect works in union with the engineer, and if collaboration occurs throughout the entire construction process – only then can we say we’re aspiring to build truly better timber buildings.

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