What do we mean by ‘Mass Timber’?
Most discussion of mass timber in the UK over the past two decades has revolved around the use of cross laminated timber, to the exclusion of almost any other engineered timber product or system. Yes, many new and extremely interesting buildings have arisen during that period that exploit CLT’s many attributes, so much so that for many architects and engineers unfamiliar with other forms of solid laminate timber, CLT is mass timber. This is unfortunate, because - aside from glulam, which has been in regular use in the UK since at least the 1960s - and, to a certain extent, laminated veneer lumber (LVL), the wider industry knows little about any other mass timber variants such as dowel and nail laminated timber, both of which eschew the use of glue in their make-up.
Why is there still no Mass Timber manufacturing in the UK?
As with so much of the timber used in UK construction today, almost all the mass timber that is increasingly specified here comes from abroad. Despite the evidence of a burgeoning market, buoyed as it is by climate emergency and circular economy agendas, there is still no large-scale commercial manufacture of CLT or LVL in the UK and only a modest amount of glulam production, an even smaller amount of which is produced from home-grown timber. Moves are afoot, backed by extensive R&D by Edinburgh Napier University’s Centre for Offsite Construction and Innovative Structures - to create the circumstances for CLT manufacture, but this possibility is still some way off, for reason explained below. As for dowel or nail lamination - a few very small attempts have been made to produce this in the UK, but only a handful of buildings exist (in Scotland and Wales) to demonstrate the valuable qualities of these products.
The manufacture of glue-laminated systems in the UK continues to be hampered by the scale of investment required to establish and operate a full-scale production facility - recent European experience indicates somewhere between €15-50 million is required, with a lead-in time of 3+ years before such a plant is likely to be fully operational. To date, the investment necessary - even for a medium-size plant - has not been forthcoming, the usual case against this being doubts about the scale of the UK market. Yet over the past decade the UK has led in the implementation of innovative mass timber buildings, a lead increasingly eroded by developments in several other countries that have embraced this form of construction wholeheartedly and which have changed their building and planning regulations accordingly to accommodate the opportunity to make their construction industries more sustainable and their cities healthier. Some cities, e.g. Copenhagen and Helsinki, are actively creating complete timber districts whilst others such as Toronto are seeing rapid escalation in the number of commercial and educational buildings constructed this way.
The European Experience
The absence of manufacturing capacity in the UK has also meant that it is barely quoted in the field of advanced tiber research, the bulk of university work in Europe being located in areas close the the centres of mass timber production and the forest resource that enables it - Graz, Munich, Stuttgart and Zurich being leading examples. In these places, industry also invests in the R&D being carried out, whether in process, product or manufacturing equipment development. This is also true in northern Europe - Finland, Norway and Sweden each understand the need to innovate to ensure higher added value can be generated from their vast forest resources. It is no longer solely a case of commodity production: it is very much about staying ahead of the global game with new, premium-priced timber-based products responsive to fast-growing market demands.
The North American Experience
Across the Atlantic, both Canada and the USA were previously in the position of playing catch-up with Europe as regards mass timber manufacture and utilisation, but each has long since passed that point, with a constant steam of new and very sizeable manufacturing plans coming online and - in the case of the USA - a Timber Innovation Act aimed at promoting not only the use of timber in tall buildings, but has made provision for R&D and education support to push the boundaries of innovation and production and thereby to increase the practical application of mass timber systems by construction professionals. This is not to say that all north American schools of architecture or departments of engineering are engaged in this work, but those that do are now swimming in the same pool as the international leaders in this field.
Understanding the Resource
In each of the country’s mentioned above, research and development is predicated upon the specifics of the local resource, i.e in-depth understanding of the characteristics and properties of the available timber species as the starting point for product innovation. From this stems other ideas for, for example, new connection systems, double-curving structures, engineered timber facades, etc. as well as rigorous testing to address critical issues such as fire and moisture control.
Building the Market for Mass Timber
Fundamental to all of this is the market. For the market to grow and for demand for manufacture to take place in the UK to increase - and be responded to by industry and government - greater knowledge and understanding amongst architects and engineers about the a manufacturing, design, and construction possibilities of all forms of mass timber is essential. At present, only a relatively small proportion of UK construction professionals and their offices have sufficient knowledge to confidently encourage clients down the path of mass timber construction. Indeed, it is increasingly the client bodies that are requesting this technology in order to meet current and upcoming legislative requirements. In stipulating this, they are also aiming to fulfil their environmental aspirations, whether for fiscal, presentational or climate change reasons, or a combination of all three. In these changing circumstances, architects and engineers with knowledge and experience of mass timber usage are ahead on the critical path to securing new commissions
Meeting the Educational Need
Which is why the Mass Timber Academy has been brought into being. In the absence of higher education institutions picking up this mantle and in the sure knowledge that for them to do so will require two things: staff experienced in the subject and a substantial and time-consuming alteration to the standard curricula in order to accommodate any form of structured education programme, Timber Design Initiatives Ltd has sought to implement one that is responsive to the needs of architects and structural engineers, not only in the provision of knowledge, but also in its recognition that the time and resources available to an industry sector predominantly comprised of SMEs can be limited.
What is the Mass Timber Academy?
Headed by architect, author and critic, Peter Wilson, whose previous experience in leading the Wood Studio research centre within Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for Sustainable Construction has been the foundation for this new approach to Continuing Professional Education (CPE), The Mass Timber Academy offers a five-tier syllabus to give participants at all stages of their career the independent, objective information, mentorship and support needed to progress the wider use of mass timber construction in the UK.
The Mass Timber Academy’s Education Programme
The Mass Timber Academy’s programme has been developed primarily as an online resource, but plans to extend this with a calendar of live events (conferences, masterclasses, seminars and workshops) once current Covid-19 restrictions are lifted are already well advanced. Participants can progress from tier to tier at their own pace and at their own level of interest. The Mass Timber Academy’s objective is to provide each participant with the knowledge and skill to develop their own specialist abilities in this rapidly growing area of construction. The Academy aims in due course to provide micro-credentials that recognise achievement levels and which can accumulate into certificates of accreditation, thus providing demonstrable evidence of skills and experience. For individual professionals and architecture/structural engineering businesses there is no equivalent education programme available anywhere.
Careers and Business Opportunities in Mass Timber Architecture and Engineering
The Mass Timber Academy not only offers a clear direction for individual career progression, income enhancement and job mobility, but it is also about upskilling the architecture and structural engineering professions in this increasingly important field. For firms operating in these sectors it offers valuable staff training through its structured programme of Continuing Professional Education (CPE), encouraging staff retention, in-house career progression and an important specialism that can be offered to clients as well as the opportunity to bid for new, mass timber-based projects.