Out with the old...

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2015

Peter Wilson strips out old wood to see new timber interiors making their way back into the market.

For readers of a certain generation, the very suggestion of a wooden interior is likely to conjure images of stripped pine furniture and sanded floors, but the world of wood has moved on considerably since the heady days of the 1970s, when the BBC comedy series The Good Life celebrated a simpler approach to domestic existence and when DIY (whether done well or badly) was all the rage. Wood has, in fact, gone upmarket over the past 40 years, to the extent that it now permeates not only our domestic internal environments, but also those of our commercial, cultural and educational facilities. 

So what are the altered circumstances that have made wood popular again and regarded as a high-quality, high-value contributor to the modern interior? Yes, the material’s tactility and feeling of warmth are still important characteristics, but it is not the heavily grained, knotted and varnished boards so prevalent in the 1970s that appeal today – rather, it is the durability and stability of highly engineered wood-based components as well as other properties that have transformed perceptions. Take the world of flooring alone – there are now literally hundreds of composite, laminated or modified wood systems on the market, with a price spectrum that ranges from relatively inexpensive to eye-watering levels on a par with materials generally considered to be in the luxury cost bracket. While internationally the domestic market for wood flooring is enormous, it is in the interior areas of larger public buildings that wood has made a new and highly visible impression, stimulating new design approaches. 

As with so many things today, the re-emergence of wood as a construction and finishing material has much to do with its environmental qualities and – at risk of being seen to bang the same old drum – there is no getting away from the fact that it is the one genuinely renewable building material we have and with carbon sequestration credentials that heavily advantage it over competing construction materials and products. This is not to suggest an either/or choice since, used well, wood is able to complement concrete, masonry and steel components and finishes. And, in engineered form, it no longer has technical disadvantages such as dimensional instability. In addition, it offers distinct benefits, particularly in areas such as noise control and the acoustic design of auditoria. 

Take Oslo Opera House as an example, arguably one of the most beautiful modern buildings constructed anywhere in recent years. Rising out of the water on the city’s harbour front, its fully accessible exterior is clad in white Carrara marble, giving the building a glacial appearance that is enhanced by the groups of people who seem happy to wander over its roof at any time, day or night. Its cavernous lobby space is equally dramatic – a potential acoustic nightmare with its concrete structural columns and hard floor and wall surfaces. The space is relieved, however, not only sound-wise when crowds are milling around in the intervals, but also in terms of texture and colour, by the astonishing use of wood cladding to the balustrades of the ramps that curve around the outer wall of the auditorium itself. This is intelligent design and use of wood, with the irregular surface created by the employment of short lengths of material softening sound and light while providing a rich glow to the space that might otherwise be absent. 

A more unusual example is to be found in the Richmond Oval, an ice skating arena built in 2010 for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. The Mayor of Richmond (a satellite city to Vancouver) called for the building to be an expression of local materials, a desire that engineers Paul Fast and Gerry Epp (Fast+Epp) took to a giant scale. In designing huge structural beams able to span the 90 metre width of the skating space without intermediate column support, the engineers decided to eschew conventional steel and concrete solutions and to fabricate giant glued laminated (glulam) timber beams instead. These are configured in pairs to form curving V-shaped composite beams that impressively span the vast breadth of the arena, and also contain all of the building’s mechanical and electrical services (lighting, heating and ventilation, sprinkler system) within the hollow of the V. 

Remarkable though this integrated solution is, it is the smaller, 13 metre ‘wood waves’ spanning perpendicular to the main beams that best demonstrate the benefits of wood in the particular circumstances of this building. Comprising standard sawmill sections, the short lengths of softwood are formed into irregular curved V-shaped beams and spaced to allow air penetration to the sound-absorbent material that lines the inner faces of the V. These intermediate beams provide the acoustic dampening so often omitted from these large, reverberant volumes, but also a perception of warmth that is not normally associated with ice skating venues. 

The big win is that it makes use of some 6,000 beetle-affected pine trees, an endemic problem in parts of British Columbia and which is too often resolved by simply burning the infected material. Here Fast+Epp has demonstrated that the wood’s structural capacity (and hence its economic value) remains unaffected by disease, and has used this to advantage in its ingenious solution to an engineering challenge. That this has also benefited the local forestry sector is a message for architects, engineers and foresters in the UK, where our larch, oak and Scots pine trees are also variously affected by disease. 

Back to Vancouver, however, where the recently built Convention Centre is prominently sited on the waterfront. The city is aiming to be the world’s greenest by 2020, and this public building is an intentional demonstration of renewable technologies and passive design solutions. While much of the green innovation in this vast complex is not immediately apparent, there is no escaping the impact of the vast wall of wood one side of its main foyer space. Here the building makes a highly visible expression of the province’s primary construction resource while, at the same time, locking in substantial volumes of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the sheer volume of timber used. 

The potential to create quite different internal environments with readily available timber products is also apparent at domestic scale. In recent years, the Isle of Skye has witnessed a gradual reinterpretation of traditional housing solutions that have proved more suited to its rugged landscape than the kit-home ‘bungaloids’ that have deleteriously peppered it since the Second World War. Skye now has a remarkable range of modern, timber-clad homes that are highly distinctive and particular to the plots they sit upon. This is a highly regionalised approach and very far from the anodyne house-types universally promoted by volume developers – these houses are very much for and of the culture and landscape of Skye. 

Two relatively young, talented architectural practices located at either end of the Isle, Dualchas and Rural Design, have had their respective approaches to low energy design garner many architectural awards. Designed initially as a holiday home, Fiskavaig (by Rural Design) is a small trapezoidal house sitting lightly on agricultural piles and appearing, to all intents and purposes, to be just another of Skye’s new generation of wood-clad houses. Yet, inside this modest home makes the most of its low budget materials, with oriented strand board used as the wall and ceiling linings throughout. An industrial finish, yes, but the overall feeling is one of warmth and simplicity – and an absolute snip at less than £60,000 at the time it was built. 

At the very north west of Skye sits Borreraig, a bespoke and exquisitely detailed larch clad house by Dualchas. With stunning views across to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, this is evidently at the top end of the price range, but it is the standard of its interior finishes that takes one’s breath away. Lined throughout with plywood, the house exudes a quality that belies normal perceptions of what is generally considered to be a standard construction product. In this instance, however, the plywood has an outer lamella of oak and this, matched by extremely precise joinery, provides a warm, comfortable and elegant interior that requires little maintenance by its owner. 

These five examples indicate a small part of the immense range of design opportunities presented by modern timber products. Contemporary technology is very much part of this renaissance – CNC machines and parametric computer modelling are but two areas in which technical advances have transformed designers’ views on the potential to use wood throughout our new buildings. This humble material has most certainly come of age.