Coventry-born Gordon Cowley can look back over a career that has seen a resurgence in timber structures but, as he often observes, “there’s nothing new under the sun”.

By the late 1950s Gordon was working for LR Bootle & Norman Ltd, a “very imaginative company” which was producing I-beams, truss rafters, glulam and many other products well before they became well known. “The Americans have recently applied the scale and marketing power to take all of these products forwards, which is the real reason why they’re so popular now, but we had them a long time back,” he said.

Having run the company’s Nuneaton production site, Gordon transferred to its Lincoln drawing offices in 1970. “I went on a stress grading course and that’s when everything clicked into focus for me,” he said. “It all began to make sense. I suppose it transformed my life.” He helped with code committee work, providing an otherwise academic subject with a practical perspective.

By the end of the 1970s Gordon had become technical director. However, the business became part of a larger group whose interest in engineering eventually waned and the office was closed.

In 1980 and now based in Waddington, Gordon Cowley was on his way, as Cowley Structural Timberwork Ltd (CST). “It was a relief really, with just a few of us dedicated to what we knew. We never really had to seek work very energetically and as units on our estate became available we took them over.”

Working relationship

The first decade saw CST working very closely with Lilleheden. The glulam manufacturer needed a team with knowledge of the UK market and its specialities and, as it gradually gained market knowledge, CST moved towards more difficult projects. Some of these have been very substantial, including one in Norwich where the total package was worth £950,000.

“That included design right through to site work,” explained Gordon. “The glulam content was probably £50,000.”

By 2002 CST had built up a huge following of leading architects and engineering consultants, all wanting to tap into its knowledge. Mould-breaking structures, such as the Peckham Library pods, Kingsdale School Dulwich and many others, had really put CST on the map. Unfortunately, big projects also entail big risks and the combined failure of contractors on two sites put CST beyond its financial ability and it ceased trading in May 2003.

However, by March 2004 it had regrouped and the new company, Timber Engineering Connections (TEC), was back in production with 17 staff dealing with all aspects of design, production planning, manufacture and site logistics.

Company philosophy

The design team consists of a very young group. “The designers are virtually self-taught, because standard training is almost a handicap; I try to get hold of them before they’re ‘contaminated’,” he said.

This philosophy is demonstrated by one member of the team, who came in after a secondary school education, followed by working as a joiner on the shop floor and studying 3D draughtsmanship. “He took on the Scottish Parliament project – one of the most challenging jobs imaginable – because he understood the needs of the people working with him,” Gordon explained. “The professionals tended to be a little patronising, wondering if a bunch of Lincolnshire boys could do the job, but they soon realised that we knew what we’re up to.”

The workshops are spread between various units and, because the work is so specialised, many of the machines are either adapted or built from scratch by the team. However, there is some very specific equipment, including a CNC router 5-axis machine, with an 8m bed, to profile long sections. Rigorous testing and trials are all part of the process and there is a wide range of test rigs to cover different design aspects.

Each workshop area sprouts all manner of amazing components: a pyramid roof made from Thermowood for a house on an island on the Thames, was just one example, while complex curved and concave box sections for special roofs were being made elsewhere.

Timber itself is unlikely to feature without mechanical fixings and Gordon Cowley’s experience over the years has produced many novel products, including his own patented system, the “Cowley Connector”.

Our industry has a true champion in Gordon Cowley, as he employs timber within the most imaginative building projects seen in the UK. It’s also certainly the case that a large band of architects and engineers are very pleased to see TEC in business today, giving them what they, their clients and the public want.