Mass Timber Blog

03/05/2022

Mass Timber Blog

The BBP’s Building Innovation & Technology Group, chaired by Neil Pennell of Landsec, recently brought together industry experts to share their knowledge and facilitate discussions with BBP  members on the opportunities and challenges of using mass timber in construction.

Gardiner and  Theobald’s Mass Timber Forum

Opening the meeting, it was really interesting to hear from Oliver Booth and Jessica Pennell about how the Mass Timber Forum has brought stakeholders together from across the supply chain to discuss the many benefits of timber in construction. These include lower embodied carbon, offsite construction and health and wellbeing benefits. The Forum is also seeking to address some of the perceived obstacles to widespread adoption of timber such as insurance and fire risk. 

Astrea Asset Management - 38 Berkley Square

It was fascinating to hear from Astrea Asset Management - one the BBP’s newest members - about their plans for a nine-storey, 85,000ft2 commercial office development at 38 Berkley Square. This will feature a hybrid steel and exposed cross-laminated timber (CLT) frame, with exposed timber soffits.  What was particularly interesting was that in sharing the benefits of using CLT, Peter Pulford highlighted the opportunity to maximise floor to ceiling heights, the aesthetic benefits, and the construction benefits including the speed of construction, lower weight loadings and reduction in waste due to modularity. 
Peter provided further reflections on the robust process that Astrea had followed to support building regulation compliance & planning approval. He also highlighted the importance of appointing a competent team of experts at the outset, conducting extensive testing to ensure structural integrity in the event of a fire, and clear specification – right down to the type of glue to be used. 

Waugh Thistleton Architects

It was inspiring to hear from Dave Lomax about how Waugh Thistleton Architects had worked with BBP member British Land on a Timber project at 6 Orsman Road. The team took a full life-cycle approach to ensuring circularity, so that that the building can be taken apart, deconstructed, and recycled/repurposed in the future. They also ensured short-term embodied carbon savings by using lighter weight factory fabricated components. 
In showcasing the 6 storey Black and White building it was fascinating to learn how well timber had supported the construction process in terms of reducing noise and utilising site space effectively by lifting into place and bolting in situ, as well as reducing construction time.

Hybrid Structures

It was really interesting to hear Greg Cooper’s thoughts on what leads to a successful timber construction project, including having a water management strategy from the outset and putting in place measures to ensure water can drain naturally and be expelled.  

Timber Accelerator Hub 

With so much information to absorb - and a tea break in the agenda looming! -Joe Giddings kept us all engaged by outlining the solution-focussed work of The Timber Accelerator Hub. The Hub is investigating and addressing the challenges and barriers that are preventing the wider adoption of mass timber across the UK. It was particularly interesting to hear how they were feeding into the Government’s Timber in Construction Policy Working Group which has been formed to respond to recommendations made in the Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener. 

Questions and Answers
Following a short break, we were delighted to welcome to a panel discussion Dominic Lion, Philip Callow and Alan Dowdall, alongside those who had already presented. 

A lot of the questions from BBP members focussed on insurance and fire. The consensus from the panel was that insurance was available, albeit at a premium compared to other materials, particularly for the construction phase of projects. However, it was acknowledged that there was still a shortage of products to insure timber buildings post-construction. 

The panel continued to emphasise the importance of developers needing to be proactive and having a laser focus on risk mitigation from the outset. They highlighted the benefits of engaging insurers from the very earliest stages of the project to demonstrate how they are identifying and mitigating the risks of fire, water and other perceived risks.

 It was clear the subject of fire was still seen as a key impediment to moving projects forward in the UK. We learnt that a key obstacle is confusion amongst insurers as to what information is needed to support underwriting decision making – helping support the path to approval. 

There was an interesting discussion around the “chicken and egg” problem of knowledge gaps around the risks from an underwriting perspective due to a lack of timber assets in the market for underwriters to compare with, and that the more projects and data we have the more we will build a system of confidence.

From the discussion on insurance, it was acknowledged that factory fabrication and new methods of construction were building confidence, de-risking projects and in turn reducing the risk of a claim. It was acknowledged that the recent RISC White Paper will hopefully move the insurance industry on.

The panel were asked whether they saw other potential barriers to developments in timber, particularly from a structural perspective. The response was bullish, that as more timber projects come online, mass timber construction will gain momentum. 

In answering a question on why more buildings are not being made of timber in the UK, the panel responded that interest in timber buildings was high from developers but that a lack of legislation compelling the industry to reduce embodied carbon in construction was still an obstacle to mass adoption. A key differentiator being that in Europe there are generally more prescriptive building codes which set the direction for the market. This explains why we see global developers with a successful track record of developing mass timber projects, who are not yet active in the UK market.

Reflections

The session highlighted how multi-faceted the subject of mass timber is. Although throughout history timber has been used in buildings; it has been less so in large construction projects, especially in the UK and there is still a lot to learn. 

Although we only scratched the surface during the meeting, what was clear from our speakers is that it has been a journey for them all, but the key learning was that early collaboration was key and the more that we engage early on, across the whole supply chain, from funders and developers to safety professionals and regulators, the more likely we will be successful.

Two hours was not nearly enough time, and we look forward to continuing to focus on this important topic in the future with our members.

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